How Advertising Will Heal the World and Your Business

“85.4% of the respondents believe that ‘living a meaningful life’ is important.” – Mark Woerde

Lessons learnt: People want to do good, make a meaningful impact. Time and money keep us from actually doing this. Incorporate prosocial behaviour into your company.

Will advertising heal the world?

If the premise of your book is: advertising will heal the world (and your business), then you’ve got big shoes to fill. Mark Woerde takes on this challenge and is actively living the life. Does this mean that his book fully delivers on the promise, maybe. Between the cross-sectional research with quite socially favourable questions (of course everyone wants the world to be a better place) and lack of concrete advice, (more) examples or case-studies, he does get his point across. It’s not only we the people that should treat our world better, brands also have a role to play.

A key observation to make, before diving deeper into the book, is that today is the perfect time to be a prosocial brand. We (in the rich countries) don’t have to worry about our next meal, a roof over our head or the possibility of a bomb killing us. It’s the time of abundance and we have the luxury of being able to think about other people. Woerde states that living a meaningful life should be the base of Maslow’s Pyramid. I disagree and think that it’s something that is more to the side. First, you care for the physical safety of yourself (and your family), and on top, we think about the self-actualization of yourself and others around you.

So why do we help others? Where do these feelings originate? As always this question is answered by both nature (e.g. your genes) and nurture (e.g. your upbringing). The nature argument revolves around how groups have evolved and who in the groups have survived. Woerde argues for survival of the kindest, see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins for other arguments. He also argues that prosocial behaviour is promoted via stories. I tend to agree and recommend reading Just Babies by Paul Bloom to learn more about how nature and nurture interact.

A wiser way to spend $450 billion

The book (or actually half of it) is about how to better spend your advertising budget. Woerde is even more ambitious than that and argues that prosocial causes can be made the main course of your brand or even your company. But how does it help your company? This is answered by the following response from the survey: 64% of people state that it makes sense to buy prosocial brands over brands that are not. I think that there is a small flaw in the logic.

People want to buy the ‘better’ brand, but most probably will not because of at least two reasons. The first is that they don’t think. In the supermarket, they will buy the same brand they bought last time. Your brain is configured to be as efficient (lazy) as possible, you won’t consider all brands of peanut butter when you are getting a new jar. The second is that they have an economic incentive to not buy your prosocial brand. What if the local brand is as good, doesn’t save children in Africa, but saves you 50%, many people would go for that brand. This in no way means that there are no prosocial brands, nor that they shouldn’t be there. It does mean that not 64% of the purchases in your grocery store will be to these brands.

But when they are they can be to three kinds of prosocial brands. The first is a donating prosocial brand. These brands ‘simply’ donate to good causes. The second is prosocial service brands. These brands actively help society by offering a service (for free). The third (and arguably best) category consists of meaningful prosocial brands. These brands incorporate their social effort with active participation by themselves and their clients. Pampers, for instance, made sure that each pack of diapers equalled one vaccine.

“Branding is not merely about differentiating products; it is about striking emotional chords with consumers. It is about cultivating identity, attachment, and trust to inspire customer loyalty.” – Nirmalya Kumar

The Social Business Enterprise

An audacious goal for your (or any) company would be to become a social business enterprise. This means that the social goal should be primary to your business (financial) goals. Some businesses are doing this with their brands. For instance, Unilever uses iodized salt to combat iodine deficiency in Afrika. But would it be feasible for your own brand?

To that questions, I remain lacking an answer. Firstly because every company has her own business model, own vision and own challenges. Second because it’s not clear for me how the book has helped me in transforming my company to become a more prosocial brand. It did help me confirm my positive feelings about donating 10% of my income, but I’m not sure how my company could become more prosocial.

Despite my critical review, I do think that this book has great value. It’s a kickstarter for a social debate on what companies are, what they should do and how they can help better the world. Maybe a second book should start with more examples and reasons for companies to become more prosocial. After that, it could tackle the advertising issues and show how the prosocial brands always end on top.