Purpose-Driven Marketing in a Tumultuous 2020: A CMO Conversation

By Tinuiti Team

2020 has made one thing clear: it’s no longer acceptable for brands to sit silently on the sidelines in times of crisis and wait for things to pass.

How does a purpose-driven company navigate these times of social upheaval while remaining true to their brand? Simple. Listen and speak the truth.

I sat down with the CMO Harriet Seitler, a pioneer in purpose-driven marketing for over 25 years, working with brands like MTV, ESPN, and OWN (Oprah’s network). Seitler, who is now CMO of the edtech company, Course Hero, shared some wisdom about advertising in today’s socially-conscious world.

Watch the video below or scroll down for the key takeaways.


Show Don’t Tell

It used to be enough for businesses to simply administer a milquetoast statement of carefully worded solidarity during times of crisis. But now employees and consumers expect companies to take a real stand on social issues and world events. How do brands weigh in on volatile topics without being provocative or, on the opposite end, coming off as disingenuous?

It starts with knowing who you are and what you stand for as a company and then working every hour of every day to make sure that’s authentically embedded into your company’s culture. Once that philosophy is in place, Seitler says all decisions must be consistent with the culture. Who you decide to hire and partner with is as important as who you decide not to hire and partner with. After consistently adhering to your core values in everything you do and say as a company, your vision will become a reality.

Companies that have put in this hard work aren’t caught like a deer in headlights when catastrophe strikes. They know what to do because they know what they believe in and they know what their customer base expects of them.


Be Authentic

Seitler offered up a valuable piece of wisdom from her MTV days: don’t say you’re cool; be cool. That holds true for every brand that wants an authentic connection with their audience. You can’t just say that you care. You have to actually care—and prove it. People in 2020 (especially young people) can smell a phony.

When COVID-19 struck, Course Hero, an online learning platform whose vision is for “every student to graduate, confident and prepared” knew what it had to do. It shared resources and provided financial assistance to as many young people as possible. Their purpose-driven philosophy guided their rapid response to provide financial aid to students at risk of dropping out. Course Hero emailed every single person on their mailing list of 1.5M students. They received 17,000 responses in just 48 hours and were able to quickly cut $350,000 in checks to 1,000 students with no agenda other than to help those in crisis.


Listen to Consumers

Because of social media, the voice of the consumer can be heard loud and clear. Brands need to take the time to listen. Whether it’s feedback on a product or a desire for societal change, people are making their voices heard. Their needs and wishes should not be an afterthought but a core part of the marketing strategy of any purpose-driven brand. Putting the audience first means not just listening to your consumers but acting righteously on their behalf.


Get Customer Input Firsthand

Listening on social media and other forums is just one way to understand your customer. Seitler recommends proactive research. When the pandemic struck, Course Hero created focus groups, conducted surveys, and hosted 90 listening sessions with more than 7,000 educators, students, parents, and other stakeholders to understand head-on what they really needed.

At the end of the day, brands will fail to thrive unless they have a purpose and they stand by it even when the stakes are high. I know. None of this is new to marketers, yet somehow so many of us seem to miss the target on this. And that’s because it’s not easy. And it might not make you popular. And it might (gasp!) not even always help you sell stuff. And that’s what differentiates the companies that truly care and those that simply pretend that they do.

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