Article: Does a Cool Brand Need a Social Purpose?

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As part of an exciting new project we’re undertaking – a book exploring the theme ‘Beyond Customer Centric’ – I’ve been interviewing several thought leaders.

I recently caught up with Anouk Pappers and Maarten Schäfer of CoolBrands, having met them at the Cristal Ad Festival in Courchevel last year. They are storytellers so it’s interesting to hear their tale, which feeds into ideas about going beyond customer-centric:


What’s your story?
Maarten explained that they met 12 years ago in a coffee shop in Amsterdam where they discussed what they would like to do with their lives to make them more fun and meaningful. Anouk was working in market research at the time, but had studied anthropology and wanted to travel more, meet people and experience cultures. Maarten had a corporate background in marketing, and he saw a business opportunity that could support their travels by meeting brands and helping them tell their stories.

At first, it was all about helping brands understand that storytelling is more horizontal and peer-to-peer based than the usual top-down way of communicating. Helping brands tell better stories led to creating branded content, however, as Anouk points out, the more important realisation was the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit:

You cannot just make profit as a company. You must also have a purpose. So we thought why don’t we find the stories of brands with a purpose, and create branded content for them that doesn’t just try and help them sell more, but also has a meaningful component.

What do you mean by purpose?
The term purpose has become overused in marketing circles, so I asked what it means to Anouk and Maarten. For Maarten, it starts on the human level – we all need a purpose beyond living, dying and being forgotten. Anouk sees this in terms of reaching the final stage of self-actualisation in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where we become better people by helping others:

For those of us living in this era in the developed world where our basic needs are covered, it should also be about the next level, which is self-fulfillment and the responsibility to go beyond ourselves. And what goes for us as people should also go for brands.

That’s why Anouk and Maarten think brands should have a purpose and also act responsibly, which includes paying taxes and also considering the wider impact they have on society and the world. The idea being that developing a purpose beyond profit will provide brands with a greater chance of surviving in the longer term.

But can all brands have a social purpose, and does having one require a new form of measurement beyond financial ROI?
Maarten highlights the ColaLife initiative based on using the space in Coca-Cola crates to distribute essential medicines in the developing world. He sees this as an example of a brand behaving in a more socially responsible way that can change people’s perceptions about them, and this can work even for a brand like Coca-Cola.

On the measurement front, Anouk mentions the triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL), also known as the 3 Ps or ‘Three Pillars of Sustainability’ (people, planet and profit). Brands like GE have adopted this accountancy framework. Alternatively, you could have a more qualitative approach like CoolBrands, who reflect every year on what they have achieved not only in terms of their financial sustainability but also the quality of their experiences, what they’ve learned, etc.

What is the CoolBrands model?
Anouk says there are no trade secrets and the most important thing for them is that they have developed their way of life, which she sees as a completely different approach to work. For example, they never take holidays, but because they are always travelling it seems like they are always on holiday. Home is, therefore, wherever they lay their hat:

We don’t separate our life into family, work and friends. We have one life, which is different but for us it’s the only way. During this life we meet people and brands on our travels, and we now aim to meet people before meeting the brand.

When Anouk and Maarten started, they met up with brands around the globe to hear their stories. They would write about brands that had a compelling purpose and people with an interesting vision on their Around the World in 80 Brands site and select the best ones for their annual CoolBrands book. This would result in the people at those brands asking for help with their storytelling.

One example is KLM, who on the one hand simply deliver people from A to B, but on the other hand, helps deliver secondhand PCs to the developing world. KLM is also looking at how it will become more sustainable, which it’s taking step by step given the realities of its business. Anouk explains how this is linked to the CoolBrands goal:

 Firstly, it’s about inspiring brands and people to find a purpose. But it’s also about sharing even the little things brands do, as this might inspire others to do something similar given nobody is 100 percent sustainable yet.

What are the challenges you face with your approach, and what’s your solution?
For brands that have been around for a long time, Anouk sees change happening slowly because there’s a perceived risk of alienating core customers with anything radically new and different. Other brands just may not have a very compelling purpose or one they want to talk about, but CoolBrands try as much as possible to create content that matters for meaningful brands.

When they started, Maarten says the main challenge was convincing brands of the value of storytelling, which is why they have become more people- than brand-focused over time:

When we give presentations now, we focus on the personal reputation of who we are presenting to, the brand comes second. People really get this, and if they feel a connection to our story then there’s an opportunity to discuss other possibilities.

The approach seems to work because most of the time their presentations result in business for them.

Is what CoolBrands do part of the humanising of brands?
Anouk and Maarten see this as a big part of what they do. As Maarten explains:

Something like global warming is too difficult for people to grasp because our individual worlds of family, friends and work are actually very small. That’s why we try and humanise brands to help make them ‘smaller’ so that they are easier for people to relate to.

But Anouk thinks it’s also about linking your purpose to your core business, rather than having a purpose for the sake of it. She highlights the way GE looks at the world with the likes of its Healthymagination and Ecomagination initiatives:

GE invests billions of dollars in renewable energy and health technology for rural areas. But at the end of the day, their goal is to make even more billions because otherwise their business is not sustainable. What I think is interesting about GE is they have completely integrated their environmental and social innovation focus into their core business, rather than just make it a function of CSR that gets dropped when things aren’t going so well.

Why do you do the things you do?
This is an important question for Maarten and Anouk that cuts very deep because it’s also about what you stand for. For instance, Anouk’s business card says she stands for real and includes relations and food. This has an impact on the decisions she makes and her behaviour, which goes beyond just avoiding fast food:

Actually why we do what we do is because we want to grow in life, and on a continuous basis that helps us grow our comfort zone. One of my personal goals is to be able to go anywhere in the world with my hands in my pockets and feel it’s like home.

They also see their approach as being like the application of homoeopathic doses, where their sharing of good examples with brands will help stimulate the adoption of a business purpose beyond profit so that it becomes the norm. Travelling is also an important part of why they do what they do – it’s enriching from a personal development point of view, but it also helps them share stories about their experiences that both inspire other people and change their perceptions about their place in the world and what they do.

Further reading:
Anouk and Maarten recommend Peter Fisk’s People, Planet, Profit book that has informed their thinking, and you can read more about their adventures at Also, check out my interview in this series with IBM’s Jeremy Waite. Next up will be an interview with Peter Shankman.


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