Make friends and ask for permission: How to be a force for good


Adopting a purpose is all well and good, writes Steve Fuller, but certain steps need to be taken to make sure it has real impact.

Business is the most powerful force in society today. It’s more powerful than religion, than nation states… If business doesn’t help address social and environmental issues, they’re not going to get addressed.” – Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield.

At The House, we believe passionately that business and brand can be a force for good.

Brands can offer engaged audiences and the resources to spread meaningful messages far and wide – not to mention financial clout.

What do brands have to gain? Embracing a purpose beyond profit drives long-term business growth by creating a compelling and inspiring “reason to believe” for customers, employees and investors. Socially conscious brands are pushing at an open door – one in three millennials look for brands to make a positive impact in the world, according to Edelman research.

It should be a no-brainer. So why do some brands face a backlash when they try to be a force for good? Why has Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty found wide acceptance and driven sales growth, while Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative failed so publicly?

We discovered a few clues to this recently when we worked with our colleagues at Bridge Partnership on a radical cause-related project for a global lifestyle brand. The work took all of us deep into face-to-face conversations and immersive interactions with activists and movement-makers in the LGBT, ethnic minority and economically excluded communities. Here are five key insights we took away with us:


Always remember that you are part of a movement. Be generous. Make friends with fellow movement-makers, and keep those friendships healthy and active. Friends will invite you in. Friends will give you permission and inspire you to keep pushing. Friends will be honest and frank about your mistakes – but if they understand your intent, they will give you a second chance.


The best way to make friends is to meet people where they are.

Our lifestyle brand has a longstanding association with the LGBT and ethnic minority communities, but wanted to forge a deeper understanding and a more personal and meaningful connection among its top executives. So we brought them to New York for a series of immersive interactions and experiences. They met with activists and heard profoundly moving stories – and shared their own. We brought them to the clubs, art galleries, events and spaces where their customers are, and introduced them to inspiring social enterprises and projects. In other words, they met the community on its own ground and on its own terms.

It was a challenging and exhilarating experience that inspired many of the team on a deep level, awakening a new sense of personal purpose that they will carry into their work. Crucially, it gave real insight into barriers to inclusion and equipped them to better fulfill their brand purpose.


Your first step is to make sure that you are crystal clear on your company’s purpose before you take a stand on the causes that matter to you. But when you’re about to take that stand, ask yourself: “Have we asked permission to be here? Do the people affected by this cause see value in our brand joining the conversation?”

Take Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign, in which the coffee chain responded to rising racial tensions in the US by encouraging its baristas to invite dialogue about race with customers. By all accounts the initiative was well intentioned. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz felt the need to do something, and Starbucks charged in – but it was not invited in by the communities affected. Starbucks went it alone rather than working with a recognised advocacy group. Permission wasn’t sought. As a result, the move came across as top-down and tin-eared.

The good news is that seeking permission isn’t that difficult. Speak to the friends you’ve made in activist and advocacy organisations. Speak to customers. Then enter the conversation with a firm sense of how your voice can (and can’t) be of value.


The biggest opportunities arise when brands and businesses listen properly. Start genuine two-way conversations with the people affected by, and working within, the cause at hand. And when you’ve started a conversation, make sure you are really hearing what people are telling you.

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which seeks to challenge accepted beauty norms for women, is now in its eleventh year. It’s had a lasting impact because Dove is not simply using the campaign to express an opinion. It is creating shared space for spontaneous communication and dialogue (including criticism).

Listen well, ask good questions and always be learning. Do your research – Dove’s campaign was triggered when the brand discovered that 96 per cent of women don’t think that they’re beautiful. Then, act on what you hear: ask how you can help, and be prepared to change your plans.


Remember that your brand is only one part of the equation – a brand can’t own the whole movement. In his book ‘Uprising’, Scott Goodson describes the movement equation as “restlessness + alternative ideas + true believers + facilitation = cultural movements”. Where do brands fit into this? We think brands can contribute and promote alternative ideas and facilitate the work of the restless true believers. Ultimately, movements are about collaboration, openness and co-creation. Keep this
in mind and stay true to the cause, and you’ll find it easier to make longstanding friendships and create real change.


Business can be a force for good. Aligning your business purpose with causes requires thought, patience and openness. The journey won’t always be easy. But the rewards for your business and for the world are too good to pass up. Now, go make some friends.

Steve Fuller is creative head at The House – the brand agency that builds business on purpose.


Photo credit:  Aristocrats-hat from Flickr