Plan A is not fit for Purpose

According to M&S, their recent ‘Spend it well’ campaign echo’s Plan A’s ethos, “on the more altruistic scale – spend it well on products that haven’t harmed the planet, and make a positive difference by shopping in stores that are helping your community.”

Having let it bed in for the last couple of months, you would have to be a forensic detective to find any trace of Plan A in the brand campaign. The Make it Matter section of the website and a few poster sites promoting Plan A initiatives does not make this an integrated campaign.

The problem lies in the fact that M&S doesn’t have a Social Purpose. They have a really great CSR programme, but not a Social Purpose, which is why they are not connecting with their customers, nor maximizing the impact or value of Plan A.

Plan A is without doubt best in class, but it was created as a CSR/Sustainability programme and it remains a CSR/Sustainability programme; doing what it was intended to do, driving internal processes to help M&S become the most sustainable and ethical retailer.

M&S’s new 2025 strategy for Plan A is excellent, but it is still primarily an internally driven CSR programme, with a bit of community engagement, but it is not Social Purpose.

This raises the question what is the difference between a CSR/Sustainability programme and Social Purpose?

At the risk of stating the obvious; CSR/Sustainability is an internally driven programme of activity which aims to have a positive impact on society and/or the environment through the management of internal processes. The impacts are more often than not measured by supply chain impacts, cost savings, positive staff engagement and consumer trust in the brand.

Charity partnerships involving staff and customers are often bundled into CSR, but in most cases they have nothing to do with the business. Charity engagement is simply a good, and extremely important, thing to do for staff and sometimes customers.

Social Purpose has similar expressions of intent, to have a positive impact on a social and/or environmental issue, but the difference lies in scope of ambition and approach.

Social Purpose focuses on tackling a specific social or environmental problem that affects society, not just the business, by influencing the attitudes and behaviour of external audiences to effect change.

The success of a Social Purpose Campaign is measured by external impacts; the effect on the issue, the number of people who change their behaviour and attitude towards the social or environmental issue, and, importantly, the audience’s belief in the brand, impacting their propensity to purchase.

Social Purpose done properly has a direct, positive impact on the individuals that engage, society as a whole and the business.

‘Spend it well’ doesn’t try and influence audience’s behaviour or attitude towards a social or environmental issue, nor does it have a role for the customer other than to buy more from M&S or a prompt to do something good through M&S’s CSR initiatives; This is not Social Purpose, nor does it reflect the scope of ambition that Plan A embodies.

Brands that ‘do’ Social Purpose well, do so in one of two ways, either by making Social Purpose part of their Brand Purpose e.g. Patagonia and Dove or those that separate Brand Purpose and Social Purpose e.g. Nike and Barclays.

Brands that promote their CSR/sustainability credentials are saying, ‘Trust us, we are good’.

A brand that promotes its Social Purpose is saying, ‘Here is a societal problem that we are determined to help solve, if we come together we can solve it. And, we are going to help you get involved in a way that enriches your life, as well as society and our business’. That’s exciting, rewarding and win, win, win

Plan A remains hugely important and continues to achieve great things, but to maximise societal impact and value creation for the brand, M&S needs to define and implement an inspiring Social Purpose, one that connects with all their customers, and staff, something they not only get behind but get involved in.