Brand Purpose — Making the world better or splitting it in two?

Brand purpose has for some time been the buzz in marketing discussions and has become synonymous with social causes. But for all the good intent, it can also seem preachy or polarising or rely on simplistic assumptions about people’s views. This article looks at how we got here and suggests that brand purpose should be about sharing opportunities for good, not creating antagonism.

Image for post
Image for post

BRAND PURPOSE (“cause-related marketing”): a brand growing value not only from profit and shareholder return but through the pursuit of a greater social good, built into the brand architecture.

I MAKE no judgement as to whether it would be a good or bad thing, but I do wonder if we are approaching the moment of peak purpose. The augury was when the Association of National Advertisers made “brand purpose” the 2018 Word Of The Year. There can be only one thing worse than an award devoted to a word (or two) and that is winning it.

Which may seem a bit pessimistic in the circumstances, given that the idea is today’s marketing preoccupation. Taking Unilever as a well-documented example, its purpose-rich brands like Knorr, Dove, Persil, and Lipton drew 69% faster growth than the company’s other business in 2018. CEO Alan Jope recently declared that he would rid his portfolio of any brands that were slouches in this area, emphasising that “the fantastic work done by… Dove, Vaseline, Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s and Brooke Bond shows the huge impact that brands can have in addressing an environmental or social issue….” Everyone from brand teams to Campaign commentators to marketing social media is talking of the need to be “purpose-driven” and the new executions and activations of the latest good brand deed. Agencies like purpose-based briefs because they can feel more interesting; clients like purpose because it redresses the lazy shibboleth that by flogging stuff they’re not helping the world. Everyone sleeps better at night.

As long as it builds commercial brand value and makes profit into the bargain, it’s win-win. According to the Edelman Earned Brand survey, 64% of global consumers (and 91% of Millennials) say their choice is affected by a brand’s stand on social issues. Meanwhile, the creative and executional fruits of this phenomenon continually draw admiration. And a whole new sense of anticipation has attached to the purpose-led marketing playbook. “Purpose is one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve seen for this industry in my 35 years of marketing,” says Jope. Whichever way you cut it, purpose seems to pay.

Numerous brands offer coherent purpose strategies where what the brand says is what the brand delivers, and this seems to fuel growth. Bill Theofilou, MD for Accenture Strategy, says that purpose-led brands can thus “grow into other markets or industries because they’ve achieved trust status among their customers….” 2018 saw noticeable progress from, just for starters, Patagonia (sustainable clothing), Muji (humility), JetBlue (another humility, in air and on the ground), Disney (kids’ diet), Nintendo (active families), IKEA (better everyday life), Persil (free the kids), Tesla (acceleration to sustainability), Crayola (creative kids), and Coca-Cola (happiness).

Image for post
Image for post
photo: MullerLowe London

There seems nothing inherently wrong with a brand that, as part of its role, can change lives for the better. So what’s not to like? And why, if this is the case, might purpose have peaked?

As with Prime Ministerial advisors, you begin to sense that something is up when the messenger becomes the message. In 2019, the Cannes Lions content team decided that purpose had been so over-debated that speakers should cut down on the purpose talk — which, of course, had the opposite effect. The balance of the discussion remains positive, but there are now growing signs of marketing industry scepticism as well, especially when innovations using rainbow sandwiches and pink punk cans start to draw not just awareness but sometimes ridicule. And when the non-trade press (such as Benedict Spence in the Telegraph, Owen Jones in the Guardian, even Charles Moore in the Spectator) are on the case, you can be sure things are not quite in kilter. The other factor to note is that whenever a brand launches some new purpose material and, for whatever reason, it gets trashed, the discussion moves quickly from the creative merit of the work to the general principle of brand purpose — the Gillette ad (Best a man can be) being case in point (which we can come on to in a moment).

At a time when some individual executions are generating friction, it seems that the wheels of brand purpose themselves are also running quite hot. If, as Jope says, the potential is so exciting, why is this happening? How did we get here?

As far as I can see, the concept as we now define it emerged in stages, the first of which had nothing to do with societal good. 2011 saw an urgent, open-sleeved, TED-talking Simon Sinek drawing circles on a flip-chart. His thesis was that Microsoft (and you could probably say Nokia in the same breath) sold “what” and Apple (which was by then killing those two erstwhile category leaders) sold “why”. Suddenly, every brand workshop was replaying film of his presentation, and every brand meeting was phenomenologically obsessed with “Why are we here?” and “What’s our purpose?”

Image for post
Image for post
photo: TED.com

In those early days, “purpose” was not primarily about social responsibility. There were plenty of discussions taking place on CSR, and plenty of brands doing interesting stuff for the greater good. But the link between the two was an indirect one rather than built into the heart of the brand. Purpose was not much more than brand proposition with wider aspirations.

Then there came a second stage as it were, a few years later, when CSR and brand purpose seemed almost overnight to have become one. Like the moment when we all found ourselves texting (I appreciate this ages me), there didn’t seem to be a single moment when brand purpose became what we know it to be now. But one of the first signs of a Big Thing happening was in Marketing Week when Airbnb chief Alex Diminziani asked “Why are brands getting purpose so f*cking wrong?” Her own answer was that it had to mean almost complete integration between brand proposition and purpose, rather than settling for bolted-on philanthropy (as, for example, McDonald’s had been successfully doing for decades with the Ronald McDonald houses; or an expedient promotional initiative, such as Charmin toilet-tissue sponsoring public washrooms in Times Square) or a piece of tokenism from a brand with a less than virtuous past (“fake purpose” as defined by Alan Jope).

Brand purpose in this new “proper change” form could be perfectly well executed by brands like Huggies (“no baby left unhugged”), Lifebuoy (“saving lives through hygiene”), and Dove (“my natural beauty”). But how do you integrate a purpose into brands that are not quite so semiologically virtuous as a Unilever cleaning product? And can it always be credible with a brand such as Starbucks that, despite its lofty menu of purposeful items (community integration, civic discourse, sustainability, farmer equity, food-banks, etc) still courts controversy over huge tax avoidance?

“Nowadays, consumers have more information at their fingertips than ever before and they are not afraid to pull the plug on dishionest brands,” writes Emma Mulcahy in The Drum. Mark Ritson of the Melbourne Business School has gone so far as to suggest that “the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic… I care about race equality, deeply, but I do not trust a giant corporation with an extremely spotty reputation for paying its taxes telling me what to think.” And if cause-related brand purpose is the must-have, can it fit seamlessly with all sectors, including those with more ambiguous moralities? Fried chicken? Cigarettes? Surface-to-air missiles?

It’s fair to say, in response, that over the last year or so, the ingeniousness with which many sectors have integrated good causes into their brands’ identities has elicited some superb examples of the media and communications industry at its creative and ingenious best. Whether it’s Burger King on bullying or Manpower Recruitment on gaming (“add gaming to your cv”), purposeful briefs have inspired some noteworthy creative material.

But there have also been moments where the execution has become so earnest or so tendentiously right-on that it is hard not to feel that someone somewhere is just trying way too hard to be on the side of the trend-angels.

There has been no better example of this than the infamously fatuous Pepsi commercial where Kendall Jenner, at the head of some improbably photogenic, multi-cultural protest demo, pacifies the Baton-Rouge-style cop riot-line with a little blue can of pro-bono refreshment (the whole sorry affair subsequently ridiculed by a Saturday Night Live sketch). Here was a brand trying to appeal to what it saw as its Gen Z+ target, but whom it stereotyped beyond parody; a brand that then got pilloried for its “woke-washing” (as insincere capitalisation on causes has come to be known). In any case, what was the purposeful message that we were supposed to extract here?: Pepsi emasculates law and order?

Image for post
Image for post
photo: vox.com

In terms of campaigns or programmes that do make sense, a familiar example is the long-running British Airways small change collection scheme. The brand flew passengers with unloved loose cash between places where suffering kids could benefit from even small amounts of money, so why not run a campaign that merged the two — and make everything seem purposeful into the bargain? Equally coherent was the Airbnb proposition, whereby it was plain to see that the product (“open houses”) had a natural fit via the “cause” of crossing national boundaries and the belief in a more open world — hence the notion of “belong anywhere”. It all felt coherent, and, in pre-Brexit days, the implicit quasi-political philosophy felt uncontroversial. But in these more fractured times, the notion of borders and boundaries can be a sensitive one —David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics came up with the now well known thesis of the fault-line in society being “between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.”

Dealing with complex causes can derail the best, but an unforgiveable sin is to stray into preposterousness. In support of the increasingly visible Pride movement, Barclays claimed, in relation to its branches, that “Love happens here” — the appeal of which depthless idea would be dubious, even were that brand’s customer experience stats at perfection. (The same bank’s theme of “helping people achieve their ambitions… in the right way” was far less sententious and, indeed, more intelligible as a realistic purpose.) The gay journalist Douglas Murray believes that the Pride movement might itself be in danger of over-reach and, like the Barclay’s branches of love, the M&S LGBT sandwich didn’t help in his opinion. “I don’t need my love life to invade other people’s sandwich selection. And I don’t see any remaining homophobes… being won over by a sandwich whose recipe is concocted by acronym.”

Another question worth raising at this stage is whether brand purpose should be an unequivocally essential element of all brand identities (as Alan Jope seems to think). The danger is that implicit in this “must have purpose” rule is the notion that other forms of brand message may somehow be inferior or morally dubious — just at a time when the benefits of capitalism generally, and good old-fashioned pitch-selling specifically (which research continually shows is actually appreciated by consumers), are increasingly and unfairly undervalued. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Charles Moore says, “Surely Marmite’s meaningful contribution to the world since its invention in 1902 is that people like it and find it cheering…. If it is a choice between saving Marmite and ‘saving the planet’, one instinctively favours the former.”

Which takes us to what might be seen as the third (and most troubling) stage of brand purpose evolution, with the arrival of the binary political stance. (Needless to say, not all brands stray this far, nor do many need to.) It is one thing to embed an unambiguously Good Thing like teaching or health or charitability or even basic ecology into a brand’s purpose. It is altogether another to take a stand on an issue that divides opinion on the political dimension.

By way of example, early in 2019, HSBC channelled John Donne and advertised that “We are not an island…” (part of the “Together we thrive” campaign), which aside from being factually questionable is something that has viciously split families, friends, businesses, and political parties during the past 3 years of British life. (HSBC’s spokespersons claimed that none of it had anything to do with Brexit — which is like claiming that cake has nothing to do with diet — and which only served to make the company seem to be cravenly back-pedalling.)

The problem is not in wanting to make the world a better place, but that what seems better (or the right opinion) for one person might not seem quite so better (or the right opinion) for another. Because of this, and more than any other brand modelling system, “purpose” — which ostensively purports to be inclusive — has on occasions been inclined to divide.

The last year or so has seen most causes (like most stuff, actually) subject to politicisation across the internet. Even climate-change, in which many brands rightly take a well-intentioned interest, is full of fiendishly complex socio-economic conundrums that can give rise to acrimony — even at times within the same lobby groups. Whatever the issue, social media is a largely unmoderated echo-chamber where alternative viewpoints that might once have prompted a civilised intellectual chat between one or two individuals will now trigger a thousand-handed pile-on for those that have transgressed this view or that, knowingly or not. Tunnock’s, Heck’s Sausages, even Campaign magazine, have all been taken by surprise and given punishment-beatings. And in the more deliberate pursuit of edgy cause-related purpose, brands like Mastercard or BrewDog (Pink IPA for females) have discovered that what they were trying to say has caused unpredicted press and social media spats.

Single-issue Campaigns — that might seem edgy and brave in a brainstorming session — can easily stumble into the hornet’s nest by accident, or at least not have full understanding of what they are getting into until it’s too late and there’s a lynch-mob outside the door. When Lacoste swapped its crocodile for some other threatened animals, it didn’t take long before there were shouts of hypocrisy and calls for all that brand’s other leather goods to be boycotted.

Meanwhile, other brands have made deliberate attempts to align with the appropriate politicised causes for whom their target, it is felt, might have ideological sympathy. Predictably, the majority of the time, it seems that the Millennial (and younger) audience is being chased, and with occasionally superficial or even banal viewpoints that do not always accurately match how this intellectually and politically volatile audience segment is actually thinking from one moment to the next.

Nike were early exponents of not only wanting to “make a difference” but also to “express a belief”, even where the issue was a highly controversial and factionalising one. This brand had run a successful multi-million-dollar campaign with the NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, well known for his civil rights activism and protests against police racism. But when the brand launched the Air Max Independence Day training shoe (designed around the historical Betsy Ross flag), Kaepernick objected that the design was associated with slavery. Cast into the middle of a binary political feud between national pride and national shame, Nike withdrew the product, only to see this, in turn, cause further controversy and claims that it was kowtowing to “politically-correct bullying”. There followed the withdrawal of multi-million-dollar tax support for a new factory in Arizona and before anyone knew it, everyone was suffering over a shoe. In politics, there are always at least two sides — and two sets of mutually adversarial positions which can lead to big trouble for a brand. So why choose to head here?

It’s sometimes a case of naivety or righteousness — and the metropolitan media village can be prone to this.

If I can be forgiven for generalising for a moment, the media and marketing industries have an inclination more towards the socially liberal side of the political continuum than to social conservatism. And I think this can affect output in two overlapping ways. In some cases, there can be a naivety that what is taken for granted in the metropolitan bubble as the virtuous thing is reflected by all upstanding folk everywhere else — when it might, in reality, not quite be so. And the second is the less naïve and more didactic view that it is the job of a brand to “guide” people on what is the right thing. The “We know best” mentality.

When P&G’s Gillette shaving brand launched its “Best a man can be” campaign, opinions polarised dramatically between those who hated the commercial, regarding the message as being too woke (“telling me what I should be thinking”) or those who loved the idea, seeing it as being all too true (“telling them what they should be doing”). Oddly, it was the former group of disaffecteds who tended to be the brand’s core user.

Up to that point, the brand had been fighting a largely losing battle with competitive disruptors like the Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. CEO Gary Coombe explained that the “worst thing through that period was (that) we (had) lost connection with the millennial generation… (becoming) the brand of the millennial generation’s dads.” The commercial was significant in its outspoken socially liberal stance against “toxic masculinity” (scripted words), to the point of quoting the Terry Crews US Congress testimony aligning with the #MeToo movement. In its first 48 hours of screening, the commercial drew 60,000 likes on YouTube — and 315,000 dislikes. It was, in Coombe’s judgement, “a price worth paying”, even if some of the brand’s older socially conservative consumers went livid (including Piers Morgan no less, so you can make of that what you will).

One of the criticisms of the approach was that it arguably implied that all men were pre-programmed to the misogyny and bullying setting. Another brand, Egard, operating in a different sector (watches), but aligned with the socially conservative target segment that Gillette might have just sacrificed, expeditiously capitalised on the furore, launching a counterpoint piece asking “What is a man?”, “Is a man brave?”,and so on, backed by romanticised imagery and supportive statistics, name-checking various good causes, and finishing with the proposition that “We see the good in men.” Here then, in the ex-sector battle between a shaving soap and a watchmaker, were two brands rehearsing the political divide between social liberalism and social conservatism.

Image for post
Image for post
photo: YouTube/Egard

The question has to be asked: what is a brand like Gillette aiming to achieve by rallying to one side of a complex political argument other than get some sense of transient approval from one group at the cost of umbrage from another? Do we really need to extend the journey from product differentiation to brand purpose further along to brand moral imperative? To develop Sinek’s original model, some brands, in pursuit of an arresting purpose, have not just moved from “What we are” to “Why we do it”, but have now progressed in some cases to “We think you must do this”.

In this situation, what says that this brand or that is in a position to take this moral high ground or even to decide what is right — and wrong? What comes next? — brands that take a position on religion, abortion, capital punishment, torture?

Getting to this point may not have done the cause of brand purpose much good, just at the time when it seems otherwise so replete with marketing potential. Alas, we may indeed be at peak purpose. Which is why now is the time to craft and hone what we have built as an admirable marketing philosophy — rather than continually seek to find ever more fuel to make fires. (And also to accept that there are other viable and valuable approaches to brand identity other than having to always have an apparently noble cause hard-wired in.) By all means let’s be excited and challenging with our addressing of the opportunity and power of this notion. But let’s also have a degree of humility and control over what topics we get our brands to take a singularly-minded view on. A brand with an opinion is but a short step from opinionatedness.

There are ample causes with which brands can align without dividing the audience. Charles Vallance, co-founder of VCCP, says, “real beauty, as Dove so brilliantly illustrates, rarely involves putting your brand in the middle of a slanging match.” After all, the idea is to make the whole world a more harmonious and inclusive place, not to position the half we don’t agree with as recidivist shitheads. The real job of brand purpose is to show all people what can be done by brands harnessing their foresight, power, and creativity.

As I’ve quoted him a lot, I’ll sum-up with a final comment from Alan Jope who urges us to remember that “We are ALL in on Purpose.”

www.h2partners.com
August 2019

Written by

Brand Foresight consultant at www.h2partners.com, a global research strategy agency. Co-author of The Branded Gentry.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store