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How Purpose Drives Emotional Action – And What This Means for Brand Leaders

One concept continued to resonate with SB Members during the meeting: What better way to change the world than to make responsible consumption more attractive and attainable at scale?

This January 28-29, Porter Novelli hosted the SB Member Meeting & CMO Summit on shifting customer behavior. Over 200 Corporate Members, Affiliate Members and Brands for Good partners gathered virtually to discuss how marketing can be used to drive sustainable behavior change. They attended a panel on sustainable shopping, learned from Member case studies on how to motivate customers through co-creation and advocacy, and collaborated in a behavior change workshop.

One concept continued to resonate with SB Members during the meeting: What better way to change the world than to make responsible consumption more attractive and attainable at scale? Yet, to propel effective behavior change, marketers must first understand the underlying psychology around the decisions we make – and the brands we engage with. To do this, Porter Novelli unlocked what we call, Purpose Perception.

Our brains contain a vast semantic network — an interconnected web of knowledge. This hub of information is responsible for the more than 35,000 decisions we make as individuals each day.

While we’d like to think of ourselves as very rational and intelligent human beings, our brains like to streamline things. We often make decisions without even realizing it. It’s effortless and automatic. And this type of thinking (called System 1 thinking) actually makes up 98 percent of all our thinking. You read that right. Only 2 percent of our thinking is done with a deliberate and conscious level of logic and self-awareness (System 2). So, what can marketers learn from this?

Applying a social psychology lens to our understanding of consumer decision making helps to not only connect with individuals better, but also drives more impactful action. As companies look to connect with consumers on Purpose, we need to understand the role Purpose plays in building deeply embedded emotional connections that ultimately trigger our System 1 responses.

In Porter Novelli’s 2021 Purpose Perception: Implicit Association Study, we sought to unpack the connection between Purpose and System 1 thinking through a research methodology called Implicit Association Testing (IAT). IAT is a measure within social psychology that detects our automatic, unbiased perceptions. We do this by forcing participants into System 1 thinking by giving them 800 milliseconds to make a decision about a brand or brand attribute, thus unlocking their automatic associations.

This research uncovered that when evaluating brands, respondents made faster associations between brands and Purpose attributes than between brands and functional attributes. This suggests that when consumers store information about brands, they make stronger mental connections with Purpose attributes – activating a System 1 response. So, getting beyond the research-speak, what does this really mean?

Overall, when a brand is Purposeful, it connects with consumers on an emotional level, while a brand that is functional connects with consumers on a rational level. We feel Purpose automatically but have to think through function rationally — which means Purpose becomes more deeply embedded into our psyche and, ultimately, our decisions.

The research also confirmed that Purpose brand attributes lead to desired brand behaviors. Through a methodology called Maximum Differential Scaling (or MaxDiff), we found respondents were more likely to indicate Purpose words as motivators for deciding which brands to trust, work for, be loyal to and have a deeper connection with. This reinforces that Purpose can act as a signal to consumers to engage with a brand in myriad ways and marries up with self-reported data. We know through exit survey data that 76 percent of Americans say they are more likely to trust Purpose-driven companies and 72 percent would be more loyal to that company. A further 62 percent consider a company’s Purpose when making a quick or impulse purchase.

Here, we see how a strong consumer-brand relationship can go much further than traditional brand benefits, such as quality, function and cost, by incorporating beliefs, traditions, practices and rituals that strengthen affinity and make the brand a meaningful part of consumers’ lives. In fact, among all attributes tested, “trustworthy” and “inclusive” were the Purpose attributes most likely to drive desired actions among all brands tested. Brands should seek to be honest and act with integrity — as well embrace justice, equity, diversity and inclusion — not only within their brand ethos, but also in their actions, in order to gain greater levels of connection to consumers. This affinity drives the behaviors that companies seek.

Through social psychology, we’ve peeled back another layer of the complexity that is Purpose. It is something that is so deeply embedded into our experience with a brand that it becomes an instinct. We can’t see it, and sometimes we can’t even articulate it, but we know it’s there. Purpose is multifaceted and deep, and it’s emotional over rational. And within this complexity is the notion that consumers overwhelmingly gravitate toward it. In a world with so much clutter, myriad messages and touchpoints – literally 35,000 decisions a day – Purpose is breaking through. In the fight to not only win consumers’ hard-earned dollars, but also drive the sustainable and responsible behaviors brand marketers seek, Purpose is the clear leader.

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