News & Views

Opinion / Movement Brands

by Contagious Contributor
Tom Kenyon, head of innovation and insight at Latimer Group, discusses how brands can move from social purpose to social impact

As more and more brands develop identities of social purpose and use their marketing power to start social movements, agencies move further into spaces traditionally occupied by social enterprises, NGOs and charities. This means we now have to grapple with one of the thorniest problems faced by the third sector. How do we know that what we’re doing works?

When it comes to social purpose you have two bottom lines: market impact and social impact. Market impact is easy to measure. But the loudest voice doesn’t always lead to the most change. Making decisions for social impact based on market data falls foul to what sociologist Daniel Yankelovich dubbed The McNamara Fallacy [Named after Robert McNamara, US secretary of defence during the Vietnam war, who used body count as his key metric for decision making]:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured.
This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value.

This is artificial and misleading.
The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important.
This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.
This is suicide.

Social impact inspiring real people to do real things (other than buy your product) to make real change is harder to measure than market impact. But in order to improve and make good on social purpose it must be measured.

For the last few years, London’s thriving social enterprise startup scene has had to grapple with the issue of how to measure these changes in order to secure continued funding. Foundations and impact investment funds require their investees to show a social return on their investments. Increasingly brands are going to require the same thing.

Impact measurement begins with a theory to test against, a ‘theory of change’. This is a theory in the scientific sense; an argument based in logic that explains what you do and why it matters. These must focus on the outcomes of an intervention (the desired social change) rather than the outputs (campaign reach, views etc.)

Some theories of change can be easily articulated. Patagonia’s theory of change is explicitly political. Yvon Chouinard’s desired outcome is to change government policy: Since corporations run the government, if you want to change the government, you have to change the corporations. If you want to change the corporations, change the consumers.

The fact that I’m writing this article suggests that Patagonia’s example is changing corporations. But Patagonia has developed systematic interventions on each one of those metrics. For consumers, it financially supports environmental grassroots movements, for corporations it incubates environmentally aware start-ups, for government policy, it finances election messages encouraging consumers to ‘vote for our planet’. Its impact is measured independently by the non-profit, B-Lab.

Lego states that its mission is to ‘inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’ to do that it aims to ‘redefine play and reimagine learning’. This is a big aim, and to achieve it Lego’s theory of change covers programme actions for children, parents, teachers, systems and governments, as well as a dedicated research effort to show ‘the transformative power of learning through play’. Its impact plans explicitly states that it is building and sharing evidence to show the value of play. The company has even funded a Professorship of Play at Cambridge University to further the cause of play-based learning.

These are high water-marks of impact measurement and have developed over many years, but when developing any campaign for social change, the question ‘how do we measure the outcome’ should be front of mind. ‘Starting a conversation’ is not enough – eyeballs, shares and comments are outputs. Think about how to measure the outcomes of that conversation. This could be questions asked in parliament, donations to associated causes, changes to your rival’s product – the outcomes you measure are up to you. What is important is having a theory of what will change and measuring it. That’s how you know what works. That’s how you know what doesn’t work. And that’s when you know what to change – because accelerating change is what purpose is all about.