Why we can’t stop debating Purpose-marketing, and never should

anne miltenburg

Yesterday it was Gillette and Nike. Today, it’s Lego. We find ourselves enveloped in a trend that shows no signs of slowing down: ‘Purpose’ is on everyone’s lips, and every day it seems a new company jumps on the bandwagon with a campaign that gets our tongues wagging.

On a brand safari in Chicago this summer, I spotted purpose-marketing campaigns on every corner. Photo by Clarissa Sparks

As a brand developer, author, teacher and community builder that champions brand thinking as a critical skill to advance social and environmental change, I am confronted by the following question almost every single day for the past five years:

‘How should we think about brands espousing social justice issues? Is it a good or a bad development?’

The fact that the debate reoccurs time and time again, is because it is ‘impossible in one sense, and unavoidable in another’*.

As consumers, we live this debate every day when we choose between one product and the other. As professionals in branding, we run into ethical decisions of both minuscule and profound consequence every day of the workweek.

The debate is so compelling because we have to consider fundamental definitions of justice that the likes of Aristotle, Kant, Stuart Mill, and Bentham never agreed on. It is so complex because it is tied into the discussion of the virtues and evils of capitalism.

My answer to the question: how should we think about brands espousing social justice issues, therefore generally takes people by surprise: sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, mostly depending on your own value system and political views.

The debate is not new

Oliverio Toscani’s ads for Benetton sparked a decade long debate in the 1990s about the ethics of using fashion and advertising to advocate social justice issues

The debate on brands using their marketing power as social justice platforms is nothing new. Back in the 1990s, the Italian clothing company Benetton gave creative director Oliviero Toscani a carte blanche for its advertising campaigns, which he used to raise awareness on discrimination, AIDS and cultural and religious intolerance. None of these topics had any connection to Benetton’s actual product or the way the company operated. Fans of the approach called it the most effective way to spread a message and lauded its impact. Foes were outraged that human suffering was used to sell clothes. It became a decade long controversial strategy, but it paid off: Benetton became one of the most successful fashion brands of the era.

Twenty-five years later, the arguments for and against brands taking a stand on social issues have not changed much.

So, ‘How should we think about brands espousing social justice issues?’

In order to answer this question, we need to narrow the field.

First, let’s separate purpose-marketing from purpose-led brands

Let’s not confuse a single ‘purpose-driven’ ad campaign, focussed on a single social issue and running for a couple of weeks, with a brand whose product, supply chain, production process, HR policies, finances, partnerships, and communications are all lead by a social and environmentally sustainable purpose. Once we are clear on which of the two we are actually talking about, the debate becomes a little easier to grasp.

Purpose-marketing: Fast food chain KFC fixing potholes in Louisville, Kentucky (photo: KFC)
Purpose-driven brand: Kenyan brand Burn Manufacturing creates cookstoves that address deforestation, improve health challenges for users, and provide much needed financial savings in low-income communities (Photo: Burn Manufacturing)

When we focus on purpose-marketing alone, the campaigns of big brands making a splash on our newsfeeds serve as great subjects for analysis of the underlying ethical dilemmas at stake.

Sometimes it’s good…

If you believe that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct, you could argue that the overall positive impact of a purpose-marketing campaign in changing hearts and minds outweighs the ulterior, self-serving motives of a company.

Does the increase in overall awareness of the negative impact of flying make up for positive effect on KLM’s brand which its Fly Responsibly campaign creates?

Brands can put their money and distribution power behind social justice issues and amplify them at a level and reach seldom acquired by non-commercial entities.

You could argue that KLM might benefit from a temporary increase in sales (and therefore flights) from their ‘Fly responsibly’ campaign, but that as long as the result is that the broader population is aware that flying is unsustainable and that this will lead to more people flying less or taking alternative transport options, that the end justifies the means.

In this line of reasoning, purpose-marketing can be morally just, when the benefit to society is greater than, or at least equal to the benefit of the company. It logically follows that a campaign based on a social justice issue that only benefits the brand rather than the people it claims to benefit is in itself an act of injustice.

Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of purpose-marketing is seldom backed up by scientific study. There are no baselines, no control groups, and it is very hard to isolate and attribute any change of mind, let alone behavior, to a single ad campaign.

Take the decade long efforts by Benetton. Whether it had an equally large impact in changing hearts and minds about the social justice issues the campaigns raised, as it had on sales has, as far as I can discover, never been the subject of rigorous study. (If anyone has data on this topic, I’d love to hear from you)

What is far easier to prove, is how successful these campaigns are for a company’s brand recognition, brand perception, social media clout, and bottom line.

I would argue that if we claim that the end justifies the means, we first have to turn to science and data to find out that the end actually is as good as some of us assume it is.

If companies are sincere about impact, they can hire Impact Measurement Experts to help them define the Impact Indicators they are looking to hit, how to measure them, design campaigns accordingly, to measure impact afterwards, and to treat the results as at least half of the criteria for success.

Sometimes it’s bad

If we judge conduct by the degree to which ideals are put into action, you could argue that purpose-marketing is morally justifiable if companies walk their talk.

The Nike ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick, in my view, created a well deserved and highly visible platform for an athlete fighting for social justice. Points for Nike, but most points for Kaepernick who walks his talk, and then some. But while Nike talks social justice, they don’t turn it into significant action, even where they directly hold the power to do so. This shifts the balance of how we can judge the company’s actions.

Although they have cleaned up their act from the sweatshop days back in the 1980 and 1990s, the company still does not extend the high ethics they so proudly display in their campaign to the people in their supply- and production chain (more details in this report). A supply and production chain that is mostly staffed with: people of color.

Though it is creating programs for kids in sports, and has several other CSR projects, Nike shows few signs it is making radical, risky changes to how it does business in order to address our climate crisis. A crisis which will disproportionately affect the global south and, again…people of color.

And yet, that is what they are asking us to do: ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’ Nike would do good by living up to their own lofty punchline.

Even if we assume the company is sincere in its advocacy of social justice, the balance between wanting to be seen to do so in order to win love and loyalty, while not living up to the high moral standards they encourage in others, is off.

Socrates said it best: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

So what, you might argue, there are no real victims here. That remains to be seen. When social justice is all talk, there is a risk, and there can be victims, because:

Purpose-marketing is only effective when it is controversial, a dangerous strategy in already polarized societies.

Twitter doesn’t blow up when an airline champions the work of UNICEF in a marketing campaign. That’s safe territory. No one will disagree with feeding malnourished children. It won’t get us talking, and therefore it won’t help the company’s bottom line, so we won’t see big marketing budgets thrown at that type of campaign right now. But an airline that tells people to fly less, now that will get some eyeballs!

The recent Coca Cola ‘Love is Love’ campaign in Slovakia drew a heavy backlash. Gillette’s ‘Toxic Masculinity’ campaign certainly didn’t receive only kindness. But that’s not a bad outcome for brands, quite the opposite. It’s the polarising effect that makes purpose-marketing campaigns a success.

While purpose-marketing might be effective in bringing more people of one side of the fence together around a certain topic, I suspect it will alienate just as many on the other side. (If anyone has data on this topic, I’d love to hear from you)

That means we have another channel to add fuel to the fire of polarization we are seeing in society today, potentially getting in the way of progress on topics that require immediate action and collaboration, such as the climate crisis.

Which leads me to why the entire debate — if purpose-marketing is good or bad — is impossible.

Whether we believe purpose-marketing is a good or bad development mostly depends on our own value system and political views

Around the time President Trump was elected I received a message from a FastCompany reporter, asking me if I thought all companies should have a social purpose. I was out in the field with very little connectivity, and replied quickly: “Yes, but only if they are aligned with my own political beliefs.”, and told her to give me a call. She never did.

Whether my cheekiness misfired, or if the message got stuck in the pipeline, I will never know.

When we say: “All things considered, when we can get big brands to advance social justice topics in their campaigns, surely that’s a good thing.”, we are making one major assumption. That their vision of social justice fits our own vision of social justice.

What is justice, and what is good and bad, is all in the eye of the beholder.

Let’s look at the examples I’ve used in this article: Nike, Benetton, KLM, Gillette: they are all championing issues that traditionally fall to the left of the political spectrum. I personally subscribe to that side of the fence, so I would be very likely to say that yes, it’s a positive development that companies get involved in social issues. It makes sense: they are fighting in my corner.

A Ben & Jerry’s post on the Trump administration drew a wave of comments, including the predictable: stick to what you are good at.

For people on the other side of the political spectrum, it is far more likely to believe companies need to stay out of the social and political sphere. My heart grew heavy this week when I was scrolling through Ben & Jerry’s German Instagram account (a purpose-driven brand that walks their talk, decades before anyone else caught on to the trend). Posts about their anti-Trump, pro-refugee ‘Resist’ campaign drew comments of such dismissive anger that it took my breath away.

Which got me thinking: how would I respond if Starbucks would launch a ‘Guns Welcome’ campaign? How would I feel if IKEA started a ‘Families First’ campaign to support the anti-abortion movement?

An aggressive Instagram post would probably be the kindest of my responses.

When we defend or condemn purpose-marketing, we are so deeply buried in our own bubble, that we forget that we are looking at the trend through our own biased lenses.

If we argue that the trend of companies getting involved in social issues is fundamentally a good thing, we are overlooking the fact that the ‘we’ in this case is our own tribe of like-minded people: people who think alike, who vote alike, who follow the same news channels and buy the same stuff from the same brands.

It would not be a risky prediction that pretty soon, a major company will launch a purpose-marketing campaign that people with my value system will not be happy with.

Or perhaps, these campaigns are already here, but we are simply not defining them that way?

Certainly, no one can refute that the N.R.A. (the American National Rifle Association) is a purpose-driven brand with some pretty strong purpose-marketing campaigns, yet I’ve never seen anyone use them as an example that extols the merits of the trend.

As a matter of fact, how we interpret brand purpose, and how we measure its success, is pretty biased, as Richard Shotton points out.

Where do we go from here?

Is purpose-marketing a good or a bad development? Sometimes good, if proven to make a difference for a cause you support, sometimes bad, if ineffective or counter-effective in advancing your beliefs.

Why will we never resolve the debate? It’s impossible. Why do we keep talking? It’s unavoidable.

A pretty cynical position to take. Does that mean we should drop the discussion?

No: the recurring debate is a tool for change itself.

If we want big companies to truly make an impact on social and environmental justice, we have to hold them accountable. If they enter the arena of social impact, they have to be willing to be scrutinized. Public scrutiny is an amazing motivator to do better and be better. But we don’t have to stop there.

As consumers, we need to reach out to these brands and question how they walk their talk. We need to vote with our wallets. Consumer trends are major driver of change. We can sidestep brands which only pursue purpose for the sake of marketing, and choose great alternative brands where impact is built into every aspect of their business.

We need science to get involved for more independent research, the methodologies opened up, and the results shared.

As brand managers working inside companies, we are in a position to make the case for the integration of social impact in every aspect of how we do business, and to prove that truly purpose-driven brands perform better over the long run, and offer a far greater ROI than a short term purpose-marketing campaign.

As professionals in branding, marketing and advertising, we have a responsibility to not just bring a polarising message that speaks to the already converted but to try and reach people on both sides of the fence.

* I borrowed this brilliant line from Prof. Michael J. Sandel ‘s book: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?


Let’s discuss!

I’d love to hear what you think. And I’d love to have more sources of reliable data. Do you have data on the social impact of brands changing minds through purpose-marketing campaigns? Are there examples of purpose-marketing or ‘purpose-driven’ brands on the right side of the political spectrum? Do you know a brand that is publicly espousing conservative social issues with campaigns or other branding or marketing mechanisms? Let me know in a comment, I really appreciate it.

Thank you

A big thanks to the members of our Brand The Change network for reading the first draft of this article and providing valuable feedback and input, in particular: Anya Liddiard, Marieke Griffioen, David Hoogland, Anne Fenn, Kristin Leitch, Carlos Arturo Aguilar, Claudia Chow, Sandra de Jong and Nasuha Suhali.


More of my writing on brands and social impact

Brand the Change, the guidebook — A full guide to building brands for change, with 13 case studies, 22 tools, the anatomy of a strong brand explained, and 5 guest essays by brand experts with tips and tricks on everything from trademarking to PR.

TED Talk — How branding can help accelerate social change

Social Good is Always Good Branding, or is it? — essay for Stanford Social Innovation Review. Why putting social first is not always effective, or as impactful, as it appears to be.

Three Dysfunctional Beliefs about Branding — blogpost. Beliefs that hold social impact ventures back from reaching the audience they deserve

The Brand Architecture Exercise that Saved a Social Venture Millions of Dollars — blogpost. Think twice before creating multiple brands or sub-brands for your company.

anne miltenburg

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Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.

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