The Digital Age of Branding: Leading with Purpose

NICHOLAS FULLER on 02 April, 2014 at 08:04

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There’s an incredible opportunity for brands these days to identify new markets, and serve them as never before. The digital age is redefining brand engagement and the landscape will only continue to change. General Mills CEO, Mark Addicks has experienced this first hand and believes in this marketplace of crystal-clear transparency, brands need to lead with a clear purpose. In his presentation at the Ad Age Digital Conference, Addicks laid out how brands can identify their strong purpose, and how content and culture then follow suit, and how General Mills is attempting to do this and thrive in the digital age.

Addicks began by honing in on some key principles. Firstly, he noted that brand fundamentals matter more than ever. Brands must know what the purpose is, why it exists, the job it’s supposed to do — and then back up that purpose through it’s products or services. But he was quick to note that the marketing industry is one of perpetual motion; it’s confusing and complex, and there’s an impulse to grab the next shiny toy. But what really matters for brands to focus on, Addicks remarked, is what they’re trying to do, and what results they want to get.

Content, of course, is another vital piece in the digital age, and failing to put out rewarding, meaningful content can translate to failure overall for the brand.

Lastly, cultural change within a company could have very fruitful, long-lasting impacts…but it’s very hard to achieve. So, with those fundamentals in place, how do brands navigate this bumpy journey of building in the digital world?

Lead with purpose

At General Mills, Addicks said the company began their approach of brand building with a sense of purpose, holding to the idea that a great brand purpose can transform your marketing and serve as an anchoring tool. Some examples of purpose-driven branding that Addicks showed was what General Mills did with Betty Crocker.

They set out with the  purpose of “Making a house a home”. In order for Betty Crocker to truly stand for that, the brand had to share expert opinions on, and platforms around, the ever-changing state of the American Family. The best way to do that was by giving the consumer a place to share their voice. They created a campaign called “The Families Project”, highlighted by a website that aggregates stories from families of all kinds. The site contains numerous videos of families sharing their stories, and gives anyone the ability to post theirs through the site and via social media. And regardless of the makeup of the family, the consistent theme of families working to make their house a home, remains throughout.

Content is king

When a purpose is set, the next key is making great content. Addicks noted that content is all about pull, and building platforms that consumers can live in is a great way to create this momentum. Through re-thinking the brand Pillsbury’s purpose from “baking” to “making”, the company helped show families all the different possibilities of Pillsbury. They ran spots that demonstrated a number of dinner recipes with Pillsbury products, and additional ideas from consumers poured in as a result. Thus there was an opportunity for General Mills to deliver the type of content that folks wanted, in a consumer-friendly way, which led to Platefull. The site started out as an ad network for General Mills, and is now a rich, open-source content network made up of hundreds of sites and social platforms.

Among other General Mills examples that Addicks pointed out is it’s Box Tops for Education initiative, which generates $600 million for school supplies, as an example of brands with purpose going beyond products. In this case, the campaign is an example of General Mills using the digital, open-source space as a fundraising program, which no longer involves or relies simply on General Mills products.

Changing cultures

According to Addicks, we are moving away from a perfection culture to one that accepts, and perhaps even encourages, mistakes. Nowadays, we test, learn, and scale, and we should be much more inclined to treat a mistake as a blip. He opined that “being 80% right is just fine”, and referred to this approach as “agility”. Where this comes to the forefront marketing-wise is on social media. Addicks said that, when approaching social, one must keep in mind both the intended and unintended audiences. No social campaign, or any campaign for that matter, will please everyone, so trying to create something with that end goal in mind isn’t time well spent.

Aside from shifts in the outside world, companies are often looking to change their internal culture, as well. At General Mills, they welcome in keynote speakers on a weekly basis, who challenge the company on what they’re doing right and wrong. They’ve also developed brand training, which allows for immersions into new technologies and translates to employees feeling comfortable about the innovations that are happening throughout the industry.

Addicks closed his presentation by reinforcing the importance of anchoring your brand to a purpose. By not setting out behind a deep sense of purpose, a brand can be fundamentally lost. On the flipside, a strong purpose at the outset of the brand building process will ultimately lead to better products and surely more effective content, which is paramount to success in today’s digital climate. Since things are only accelerating even further down this road, purpose-driven brands are the ones who will find themselves with a leg up.

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