Why Sustainable Altruism Needs a Selfish Streak

July 08, 2016 | Richard Kennedy
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Have you heard about Louis Vuitton’s #MakeAPromise campaign? If not, you may have seen a flood of pictures of people making public ‘pinky promises’ on your social media feeds earlier this year. But what is it all about?

Back in 2014, Louis Vuitton’s chief exec, Michael Burke, was reviewing the annual budgets and he was surprised by the number of different small charity initiatives the group supported across the globe. They were spending around $10m a year on these unrelated programmes which were largely driven by the managers of their 500 stores, supporting the favourite charities of their best clients.

Hoping to leverage the brand’s reach with celebrities and by focusing on a single global cause, Michael wanted to raise awareness of Louis Vuitton’s charitable giving by focusing on a single global charity. A year later, the #MakeAPromise campaign to support the care and protection of children through UNICEF was launched at a star-studded charity ball in Beverly Hills on 13th January.

Bad Taste?

But is it bad taste for the world’s most valuable luxury brand, with annual sales of around $10bn, to be supporting the most marginalised and poor children in the world? On one side you have a luxury brand that sells handbags for up to $55k and on the other side, the world’s poorest children who need the basics of shelter and food to get through the day. A lot of people are questioning whether it is morally right for a luxury brand to be supporting these type of causes as this is a stark and graphic reminder of the widening gap between the rich and the poor. However, our point of view is that if a business is trying to become a power for good and wants to make a positive contribution to society, this can only be good news.

Higher Purpose

The challenge which any business or brand faces when deciding to make a more positive contribution to society is to make sure they choose the right purpose. Their purpose should be at the heart of what the business does and not just an occasional side-show. This will make the purpose authentic and credible and crucially should provide a business benefit. Creating these conditions will create the impetus to continue to support the initiatives over the long-term. As opposed to the ad hoc, short-term campaigns that we often see. It’s much better to see real commitment and the greater, long-term impact that it will generate.

Once a purpose is decided upon, the impact is also dependent on the quality of execution. Having clear goals for the positive impact your brand is trying to make and measuring progress against these goals is also important. The amount of money raised for a cause might make a nice headline or bullet in a CSR report but measuring the actual change is far more important. This way you can evaluate if you make a difference and if so, how much? It allows you to set a clear quantitative goal and then monitor progress.

Movement Building

To activate a purpose strategy well and to create the biggest impact possible, we recommend a movement building approach. We work with some of the world’s biggest brands to help them put social purpose at the centre of everything they do and more recently, we have been helping brands to uncover their inner activist and take a stand for something they believe in. Creating a movement helps to drive the change through as many people as possible and amplifies the traction, noise and ultimately the impact. To build a successful movement, we’ve learnt 3 core principles from activists (more info here) who build functioning movements: pick a fight that matters; stage the battle; and engage others to contribute.

Picking a Fight

So have Louis Vuitton got it right? Back to Michael… During 2015, he reached out to Louis Vuitton employees and asked them which causes they felt most strongly about. The younger employees (those purpose driven millennials!) were the first to get involved, suggesting the environment, education and children as possible areas to support. However, when the body of a Syrian refugee toddler was washed up on a Greek beach, the employees felt compelled to act. Their shared belief that we need to provide support for refugee children in these most desperate times moved them to come together and set up a fund to help, in association with UNICEF.

So, in terms of picking a fight that matters to people (in this case their employees), I think they did a pretty good job. However, we believe that picking a fight which is more closely related to the business could make their position more authentic and credible. For example, Louis Vuitton could look at their supply chain and direct their philanthropic support to local, grassroots artisan designers or perhaps teaching disadvantaged people in the communities they operate to train, get jobs in the supply chain and therefore have a more sustainable impact on children. Supporting grass roots designers (e.g. funding places at art schools) could create a new generation of designers which could influence and drive the business.

Staging the Battle

What about the staging of their battle? The strategic launch created fantastic noise and interest for the campaign. They unveiled their #MakeAPromise social media campaign at a high profile celebrity ball in Beverly Hills, which raised $1.5m on the night. To stage it beyond the ball, Louis Vuitton hired celebrity photographer Patrick Demarchelier to take pinky-linked pics of attendees such as David Beckham, Nicole Kidman, Selena Gomez and Miranda Kerr. These photographs were then Instagrammed and hashtagged out to the world.

With smart strategy, celebrity influence and a luxe lifestyle to buy into and project, the social media campaign spread like wildfire over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Engaging Others

To make sure there was engagement from their customers in the campaign, Louis Vuitton created a special ‘lockit’ which is available as a pendant or a bracelet and within 10 days of the launch ball, following a globally infectious social media campaign, they had sold 4,000 ‘lockit’ units, representing $2m in sales. The brand (pinky) promised to give 40% of these sales directly to UNICEF, representing an additional $800k in just the first 10 days alone. The movement spread by enabling people who didn’t buy a ‘lockit’ to engage by either taking a picture of themselves making a pinky promise or by donating directly to UNICEF on the Louis Vuitton website.

Sustainable Altruism?

Overall, Louis Vuitton have done a great job at using their company’s unique assets to raise the profile of a globally important issue, and the #MakeAPromise campaign is more likely to have a bigger and more strategic impact versus their previous strategy. In a time where consumers want their spending to coincide with a better society for all, Louis Vuitton has stood up and taken notice, helping to aid vulnerable children around the globe in the process. However, I believe by being a little more selfish and linking their social impact and purpose to the core business would make it more likely that this programme becomes a permanent commitment with a longer term and more direct contribution to society. Will this pinky promise be forever? Only time will tell!

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Richard Kennedy

Richard has always sought the difficult over the easy where the outcome is for greater benefit. He empowers people to better themselves. His first career was running multi-million turnover restaurants, engaged to turn around underperforming sites. Seeking something with a greater social impact, Richard moved to Cape Town with his wife and baby to study for an MBA with a focus on social enterprise. Richard completed his MBA at London Business School and then joined a pioneering social enterprise providing strategic capital and support to leading social enterprises in the UK. After six years he moved to The Young Foundation as interim Director of Ventures supporting early stage social enterprises and shortly after, became Managing Director at FINCA UK, part of the global FINCA micro-finance network. Richard is also chair of the board for Social Value UK and co-chair of Social Value International which are dedicated to changing the way society accounts for value. Guided by his faith and grounded by his wife and four children, he strives to make charities and social programmes more sustainable and business more socially impactful.