Charities and activists do well on social media for a reason – people want to share their stories. Cause-related content hits that sweet spot between emotional trigger, topicality and our need for self-validation. We are what we share – and asking friends to sign a petition to save dolphins maybe says something nicer about us than inviting them to join yet another branded corporate campaign.

After a wave of corporate and institutional scandals, 2015 is being seen as the year brands must focus on building trust. Social purpose – and the communication of that purpose – is key.

Does every brand need a social purpose? Maybe not – but all brands need a story to tell. Consumers love to share stories about social good – but marketers beware: the panopticon of social media sees and hears everything. If your social purpose story is not embedded throughout the business, if it’s not watertight, you’ll end up with Egg McMuffin on your face.

Volvo made a brilliant play on our altruistic tendencies with its 2015 Super Bowl “Interception” campaign, encouraging social media participation to win not a Volvo for yourself (ugh, that would be vulgar), but for your favourite person: “While other car companies are showing you what matters to them, we want to know who matters most to you,” promises the video voiceover. The campaign ties in nicely with Volvo’s reputation for building safe family cars. Its safety record even gets a mention in the YouTube comments.

Barclays Bank UK has seen a different type of success with its Digital Eagles programme. The campaign not only galvanized employees into embracing digital, it gives the bank something uncontroversial to talk about on social media. Like motherhood and apple pie, no one is going to argue with teaching people how to Skype their grandchildren (though they might disagree with any branch closures digital knowhow may lead to). I don’t have the scientific data to back this up, but I presume we’re all less likely to get combative under videos of smiling old ladies.

Unilever has long received accolades for its positioning of Dove beauty products: the Campaign for Real Beauty, launched back in 2004, is still seen as a standard bearer for purpose-driven marketing. In 2011, Unilever CEO Paul Polman announced a far broader social agenda: he plans to double turnover by 2020 while also halving Unilever’s environmental impact (no mean feat for one of the world’s biggest consumers of palm oil, paper and beef). Last year, Unilever launched Project Sunlight, a new sustainable living initiative. Like Barclays, Unilever’s Facebook Page focuses not on specific retail products, but on stories around this new social purpose.

“The power of the internet and the transparency of social media means businesses are now accountable to consumers in a way never previously imagined,” wrote Uniliver’s CMO Keith Weed after returning from this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos. “And businesses must adapt their models to thrive in this new world.”

This post was originally published on the Claremont Communications blog.

Photo: Viktor U