From Don Draper to big data, the world of communications has radically changed over the last few decades. With the help of art, science, creativity, technology and analytics, we have entered a new era where brands embody human-like characteristics and share a sense of responsibility for the crises we face today. Audiences nowadays seek out organizations that align with their personal values. They want to know where ingredients are sourced, who made their clothes, and how their products will impact the environment. And brands are listening in.
Today, there are millions of brands fighting for space on a shelf and a space in your heart. Brands now know that in order to win an audience over, they have to take on a different approach. They have learned to work from the outside in - and not the other way around. Brands carefully study their target audience to learn about their needs, and use empathy to understand how their product or service can add value to their lives.
When consumers - like you and me - are exposed to or interact with brands that understand us, we connect. We pay them not only with money, but with our time, our attention, and our loyalty. So which brands do it best? We argue that it’s those which are driven by purpose that win us over through one basic human need - the need to belong. Purpose is the reason why we go to church, pursue careers, donate to charity, even cheer for our favorite football team. It makes us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Brands that are driven by purpose have a clear notion of why they’re in business and their effect on the world around them. Their mission attracts like-minded individuals who fight for the same cause. Through skillful storytelling, your PR campaigns can help bring your brand values across to your audience and connect your brand with more people and organizations that are aligned under the same ideals. These PR campaigns are memorable because they focus on a cause and less on a product. They specifically address the why instead of the what, and if you’ve ever seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk, you’ll know that it’s the power of shared values that moves people to action.
To keep you inspired, we gathered a list of inspiring PR campaigns that stood out from the crowd:
Oatly: using PR to reveal what it’s like to fight a powerful lobby
Changing the world is not easy. Especially if you are defying ideas that have been passed on from one generation to the next without being questioned. Take drinking milk, for example. Through marketing campaigns and folktales, we’ve been tricked into thinking that cow milk is good for us because our ancestors have done it since the beginning of time. In reality, our dairy habits are relatively new and not necessarily good for us. Oatly challenges this notion by producing oat-based drinks which cause less harm to the planet (and are more nutritious than dairy). The Swedish company has taken the world by storm by offering quality products and using fierce communication.
Source: @atinystep on Instagram
Tension with the dairy industry began to brew as Oatly’s voice grew. After Oatly’s ‘it’s like milk, but made for humans’ campaign, the Milk War was unleashed. On one side of the trenches: Oatly. Through research, they’ve shown that oat-based beverages are the best substitute for milk as they provide tons of nutrients and are less harmful for the environment than its dairy counterpart. On the other side, Swedish milk conglomerate, Arla, argued plant-based products should not use the word ‘milk’ to promote their brands and that certain ads can be misleading for the general public. The Milk War took the form of lawsuits and ad attacks.
Amidst the tension in the courtroom, Oatly decided to put their money on transparency. They launched a PR campaign, Dålig stämning i kyldisken (Tense Feelings in the Fridge Section). Oatly dedicated an entire section of their website to showcase court documents so that consumers could make up their mind about their choice of milk, based on scientific evidence. The 27-page document also soberly explains their business concept and argues that humans can very clearly differentiate dairy-based products from those who are advertised as an alternative.
As of today, the fight continues. Oatly and other plant-based products are fighting the European Parliament’s proposal of banning the use of ‘milk’ or ‘meat’ on products that do not contain said ingredients. Check out Oatly’s tongue-in-cheek response to Amendment 171.
Oatly’s innovative way to captcha a user’s attention on their website, while campaigning against amendment 171.
VanMoof: when the world’s changing, and a mighty industry can’t stop it.
Another example of a PR campaign that has shaken up an entire industry is VanMoof’s S3 and X3 launch. The Dutch cycling brand demonstrated how to turn ‘bad press’ into a PR triumph.
In 2020, VanMoof launched an ad promoting the launch of their new generation of smart e-bikes, the VanMoof S3 & X3. Not only are these bikes some of the most high-end products of their kind, they are also the most affordable. In the ad, scenes of traffic jams, crashes and pollution are reflected on the surface of a car. The text reads “Time to ride the future”, as a car melts and the S3 model is shown.
Once launched, the ad was banned in France for casting a negative light on the car industry. The commercial was rejected by France’s regulatory authority because it “creates a climate of anxiety”. VanMoof responded to this decision in their newsroom, claiming their goal is to inspire people to rethink the way they move.
“We were always aware that this commercial isn’t your usual bike ad. It’s really a call to action, a chance to leave the past behind, and make real progress that benefits everyone. Questioning the status quo will always be confrontational, but that was our purpose from the start.”
Taco Carlier, co-founder VanMoof
The buzz around the launch of the S3 and X3 models proved to be beneficial for VanMoof. They reported their first-quarter sales had increased dramatically, in comparison to 2019. In Germany, sales were up by 226% while in the UK by 184%. The rejection of the ad also allowed VanMoof to reiterate their commitment to their mission which is challenging the way people move.
Rapha: the power of community.
Rapha understands the power of connecting people with the same passion and building a community around a product. Born from a love of sport, Rapha is a cycling clothing company that aims to inspire people to ride- from cycling beginners to world-renowned pros.
To promote their stylish cycling apparel, Rapha began organizing and sponsoring unique rides and races. The Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) was founded in 2015 with the purpose of bringing cyclists together. Today, there are more than 17,000 members worldwide. Rapha has established 21 meeting places, called Clubhouses, for cycling enthusiasts in the world’s most vibrant cities across Europe, North America, and Asia. Cyclists can meet up in this retail space and find Rapha’s latest and exclusive gear, coffee, food, as well as an extensive program of live racing, rides, and events. As a member of the RCC, you can go on regular rides, and get exclusive access to member-only products, and an active social network. Got FOMO already? Join the club.
ALS Association: Finding a cure.
According to author and popular marketer, Seth Godin, there isn’t a golden rule that guarantees something will go viral. Take sliced bread, for example. After it was invented, it took 15 years for this innovative way to eat bread to take off. Virality is not an exact science, especially if you talk about ideas. There are some tricks of course. Seth argues that whatever idea you are trying to spread, it can spread a whole lot faster when the people you know and like talk about them. This is how one can explain the immense buzz around the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014.
The challenge was started not by an organization, but instead by Pat Quinn and Pete Frates, who both passed away from ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease. What first began as a challenge with friends and family soon turned into one of the greatest PR campaigns in history, with over 17 million participants and $220 million dollars raised for ALS research.
Over the course of the next few weeks, athletes, celebrities, politicians, and regular joe’s took on the famous challenge. It consisted of dumping ice-cold water over your head and then nominating three friends to do the same, having only a 24-hour time frame. If the challenge was not met the next day, participants would donate money to the ALS Association. The challenge attracted big names like former president George W. Bush, Bill Gates, and Foo Fighters. The endorsement of familiar faces and the charitable focus are the secret ingredients to the challenge’s virality.
In 2014, Bill Gates was challenged by Mark Zuckerberg to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge. The Microsoft founder nominated Elon Musk, Ryan Seacrest and Chris Anderson, founder of TED.
Patagonia: the usual suspect, for a good reason.
When it comes to purpose, no one does it better than Patagonia. Throughout the years, the outdoor apparel brand has committed to its mission statement of being in business to save the planet, and while doing so, has amassed a cult-like following and community. Did we mention it’s currently valued at 1 billion dollars? Not bad at all.
Patagonia stands out for their bold and brave communications. They once ran a famous ad in the New York Times asking consumers not to buy their jacket. They have also created a new platform where consumers can buy and sell used Patagonia clothing. Their messages are so bleak and honest, they seem almost like a bad move for any company trying to make a profit. In their balance between profit and purpose, they skew strongly towards purpose. Their core values revolve around sustainability and nature, and their audience (including me) loves them for it.
In 2011, Patagonia found multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in their supply chain. Internal audits revealed that there were several cases of trafficking and exploitation in mills, where raw materials are turned into fabric. Though some companies may try to sweep these harmful stories under the rug to protect their reputation, Patagonia took it to print.
In an article written by The Atlantic, the brand explains how, despite their efforts to manage a sustainable and fair supply chain, there are continuous cases of abuse. Instead of boasting about finding the perfect solution to this problem and portraying themselves as heroes, Patagonia sets itself apart by offering its customers transparency and honesty. The headline reads “All Your Clothes Are Made with Exploited Labor” which emphasizes the dimension of human trafficking and exploitation in suply chains in every clothing manufacturing company. By doing so, the company raises awareness on the topic and brings the attention back to its core mission: saving the planet. Patagonia successfully used this misstep to address the issue at hand and show customers how they are actively trying to fix it.
Ben & Jerry’s: activism, done right.
Ben & Jerry’s is not your typical ice cream brand. Although chunks of chocolate and caramel swirls are involved, what sets this company apart is its activism, which helped them cultivate long-term relationships with socially conscious fans. Ben & Jerry’s does not only provide a platform or in this case an ice cream flavor, to the causes that matter the most. Instead, the company educates its team and commits to long-term actions to raise awareness and funds for each cause.
In 2020, every other brand jumped at the opportunity to speak out against police brutality and show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some brands, like L’Oreal, came under fire for their alleged hypocritical stance. Others, like Ben & Jerry's, led by example, demonstrating how brands can show up for social causes.
“If we share values on climate, same-sex marriage rights, racism, I think that’s a deeper bond than sugar and fat”
Jostein Sondheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry
Following the brutal death of George Floyd in May 2020, Ben & Jerry’s launched a campaign to tackle white supremacy. They first partnered two advocacy groups, Color of Change and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in order to educate themselves on the best way to support the cause. They also used their social media channels and website to urge President Donald Trump and officials to disavow white supremacists by passing the H.R.40 legislation. The cherry on top was the launch of a new ice cream flavor, Justice ReMixed, in support of criminal justice reform. Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s says, “It’s easier to talk about difficult issues over a scoop or two”. A portion of the proceeds from this new flavor were donated to the Free and Safe campaign.
Ben & Jerry’s actions were applauded by many on social media. This unconventional ice cream company showed once again how sweet justice for all can be.
Comfort: an alliance to fight fast-fashion
Collaboration is the key to success in PR. That is why the detergent brand, Comfort, joined forces with fashion magazine Elle and the NGO Oxfam, in a second-hand shop event in order to raise awareness on the importance of upcycling clothes.
In this experiential communications campaign, visitors were invited to a pop-up shop in London for an afternoon of sustainable shopping. Participants could take in and swap an item of their own clothing for one that was previously donated by the campaign’s partners. The new clothing picks were then washed with Comfort, to emphasize the importance of buying second-hand clothes. Additionally, Elle Magazine provided free workshops with the brand’s fashion editors offering insider scoop on all things style-related.
As consumers become more aware of the dangers of fast-fashion, their purchasing decisions favor brands that are making a commitment to reduce their carbon footprint and impact on the environment.
Tony’s Chocolonely: on a mission to end child slavery
Tony’s Chocolonely is the #1 chocolate brand in the Netherlands. It was born out of a journalist’s investigation into child slavery on cacao plantations in West Africa. Since 2005, the B-corp and Fair Trade certified company has been on a mission to create chocolate that’s 100% slave-free— and not just their chocolate, but all chocolate worldwide.
In January 2021, Tony’s Chocolate released limited-edition dupes of iconic chocolate bars such as Kit Kat, Ferrero Rocher, Twix and Toblerone. These look-alike chocolate bars were part of Tony’s ‘Sweet Solution’ campaign which raises awareness about modern slavery and child labor in chocolate companies’ supply chains. Tony’s Chocolonely calls for legislation to hold these corporations accountable. Although the company does lead by example, they are now challenging others to do the same. To do so, Tony’s team worked tirelessly to recreate an identical flavour to each chocolate bar.
“If we can make look-alikes using our five sourcing principles, then anyone can,” says Ben Greensmith, a.k.a. Lord Chocolonely, representative of Tony’s Chocolonely in the UK. These sourcing principles include using 100% traceable cocoa beans, paying higher rates, strengthening farmer cooperatives, engaging in long-term partnerships, and reducing waste by focusing on cocoa quality.
“Your favorite chocolate bar can be made better and it doesn’t have to result in exploitation at the beginning of the value chain.” says Greensmith.
The campaign was met with backlash and pressure from chocolate giants to keep these limited-edition bars off the shelves. The identical looking chocolate bars were removed from shelves only a week after it’s launch. Although this move was disappointing, Greensmith argues that the reaction from consumers in the UK brought more attention to the cause. The PR stunt also caught the eye of Nestle and Ferrero, which both reiterated their support for the common fight against child labor in their supply chains.
Tesla: an out-of-this-world PR stunt
One campaign that is out of this world (literally) is Tesla’s Falcon Heavy launch. On February 6th, 2018, Elon Musk made history by launching his beloved Tesla Roadaster into space, on board the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Who can forget the image of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin in a shiny, red car flying over the planet with David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ song on repeat?
In reality, the goal of this event was to launch the rocket successfully. Adding a Tesla was “just for fun” according to the billionaire CEO. Of course, the clever placement of the cherry red cargo attracted more than 2.3 million views online. Since the launch, these videos have amassed tens of millions of views and virtually every news outlet on the planet has written about the launch.
Elon Musk successfully killed two birds with one stone. By successfully launching a rocket into space, his brand began to receive recognition for its spacefaring work. On the other hand, Tesla got the opportunity to claim its cars are the fastest in the galaxy. Days prior to the event, Musk kept his millions of followers updated on the status of the rocket during the several delays to the launch.
Once the rocket was in space, Musk tweeted a livestream of the event with the comment “we’re doing OK for a bunch of monkeys. Humanity rocks”. And we couldn’t agree more.
Maya Angelou once famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. The key to creating something memorable is to connect ideas with emotions. Brands that have the courage to focus every action on their purpose, their why, will impact and cultivate a community of people who believe in the same core values.