Skip to main content

Have We Reached The End Of Brand Purpose?

Thu, 08/31/2017

Rather than offering solutions to societal needs, brand purpose risks becoming a euphemism for ill-conceived CSR campaigns. Alex Brownsell talks to CMOs, including the marketer behind 'Fearless Girl', to find out where brands are going wrong.

It is one of the great dilemmas that marketing awards juries the world over must grapple with: does a worthwhile cause supercharge advertising creativity, or are we simply more sympathetic to marketing campaigns supporting a worthwhile cause?

The question lay at the heart of this summer's Cannes Lions festival, where prize-winning campaigns without a noble or gut-wrenching message were fewer and further between. All four of the coveted Titanium Lions were awarded to campaigns that, to a greater or lesser extent, engaged with a broader cause from helping remote communities to vote in the US Presidential Election (Boost Mobile) to defying gender stereotyping (Kenzo).

Chief among the award-winners, picking up four Grand Prix, was 'Fearless Girl', the statue created by McCann New York for State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) to promote female leadership. It was feted from all directions, with Tham Khai Meng, worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy and Titanium Lions jury president, exclaiming: "That is not an ad. That is beyond anything we've ever done."

With such effusive praise and recognition on offer, it is not surprising that many marketers are drawn to the idea of brand 'purpose'.

The idea of connecting a brand with a cause was brought into the mainstream by former Procter & Gamble marketer Jim Stengel, whose 2011 book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World's Greatest Companies used research data to seemingly prove a direct causal relationship between connecting with society and profitability.

Since then, Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed has become the industry's flag-bearer for brand purpose, instigating the company's Sustainable Living Plan and repeatedly insisting that consumers are prepared to pay more for brands with a consistently communicated cause a point he seemingly proved through the success of Dove's 'Real Beauty' campaign promoting consumer self-esteem.

Other brands, however, have run into trouble with their attempts to be more purposeful. Pepsi incurred the wrath of millions earlier this year when it suggested that the tensions of global protest movements could be quelled by the act of Kendall Jenner handling a police officer a can of soda, while McDonald's provoked controversy with a TV ad showing the emotional distress of boy seeking a connection with his dead father, and apparently satisfied by the fact they both enjoyed eating a Filet-o-Fish.

Even Heineken's well-intended video campaign showing people with wildly divergent opinions on issues such as race and gender reconciling over a bottle of beer – has been accused of belittling the scourge of bigotry, though it was hailed in other quarters as a superior attempt to enter into a prickly debate.

"[State Street's] Stephen Tisdalle warns any brands communicating a purpose that they will need to be ready for the backlash." Such marketing missteps have created a sense that the short-term interests of CMOs have hollowed out the true concept of brand purpose, leaving in its place something more akin to a marketing tactic rather than a genuine guiding force behind a company's behaviour. Speaking at Cannes Lions, Diageo's global marketing chief Syl Saller and global head of beer, Baileys and Smirnoff Mark Sandys even took to the stage to address the question, "Have we reached peak purpose?"

The answer, according to industry experts, is "no". However, brands must recalibrate their approach and adopt a more credible, more all-inclusive and more long-term view, if they are to truly reap the benefits of having a central purpose.

Stephen Tisdalle, chief marketing officer at SSGA, the asset management company behind 'Fearless Girl', says that brands must ensure they have the ""goods"" to back up any cause-related claims.

The statue of a young girl standing defiantly opposite the Charging Bull sculpture in New York's financial district was unveiled on International Women's Day on 8 March. It was meant to mark the first year anniversary of SSGA's Gender Diversity Index 'SHE' exchange-traded fund (ETF), one of a number of schemes that form part of the company's Asset Stewardship programme, investing in companies prioritising areas such as leadership diversity and sustainability.

According to Tisdalle, SSGA needed to find a way to communicate its brand values, to help it stand out in the crowd: "No one understood our brand. They saw us as big, global, highly passive index investors, whereas we are much more than that. We have constantly pioneered things, but we have never told our story properly, and we felt this would be a way of starting to insert ourselves into the national discourse, as well as the discourse on investing."

It quickly gathered the world's attention. What was meant to be a week-long campaign was quickly extended. Within 36 hours, 'Fearless Girl' had generated a billion and a half Twitter engagements; the total social engagement figure now stands at 6.5 billion, with over 800 million in Instagram alone. All for a project, Tisdalle says, which cost the equivalent of two full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal.

As 'Fearless Girl' gathered international fame, controversy inevitably followed. SSGA itself was subject to numerous questions about its own diversity policies. Some took umbrage with the company's plaque promoting its 'SHE' fund, removed when the statue became part of New York City's public art initiative. Tisdalle warns any brands communicating a purpose that they will need to be ready for the backlash.

"You don't have to be perfect but you need a foundation, and it has to have been there for some time, because you are going to be scrutinised very heavily. We go back to our asset stewardship – that has allowed us to have credibility," he says.

"You've got to have the goods, and it cannot be seen to be self-serving, because people are quite cynical. We've deliberately gone out of our way to make this not a product promotion. It is promoting the value that inspired that product, but it is not 'ka-ching'."

Another brand to align its brand strategy with a positive societal cause is home appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, whose 'Care Counts' campaign bagged it a Cannes Lions Grand Prix in the Creative Data category. The company partnered with schools in the US to offer laundry services to disadvantaged children many of whom had stopped attending school due to a lack of clean clothes. It was the latest iteration of the brand's on-going 'Every day, care' campaign, which rolled out in 2014. "You can't fix your purpose by being seen to do more CSR; it will not be solved by running a charitable programme, or by sponsoring sheltered housing." According to Kristine Kobe, vice president and account director at DigitasLBI, the agency behind 'Care Counts', Whirlpool was able to prove its brand purpose by showing the value of its products and the role they play in family life.

"Episodic advertising alone isn't enough. Actions speak louder than words," says Kobe. "A brand's purpose should connect with not only consumers but also with the organisation. It should be illustrated across everything they do.

"To truly resonate with consumers and your organisation, it needs to be a realisation of the values that are at the core of your brand. To be purposeful in communications isn't enough; you must show that you are purpose-driven and in it for the long term.

"If brands embrace a purpose for their own self-interest, the purpose won't have lasting power. The power of the idea will be limiting, hindering product development, company growth, and will be perceived as inauthentic by the consumer. An authentic brand purpose can stand the test of time and will reflect the brand's actions and words."

Brand purpose need not relate directly to a 'cuddly' message or cause, however. Simon Lloyd, a former lead marketer at brands including the BBC, Virgin Atlantic, Superdry and AXA, believes that purpose represents a "good thing", with the "caveat" that is must be as powerful internally as it is communicated to an external audience.

"In my Virgin Atlantic days, we had the 'Virgin way', and our ethos was linked to the mother brand. That was incredibly important, and something that infiltrated throughout the entire organisation. People working for the organisation wear it like a badge, and it offers a 'North Star' to follow," says Lloyd, now chief marketing officer at linguistics app LingoZING.

Lloyd says many organisations are drawn into "kneejerk" reactions when processing unfavourable brand metrics, but insists that short-term purpose-based marketing will often only compound the situation: "You can't fix your purpose by being seen to do more CSR; it will not be solved by running a charitable programme, or by sponsoring sheltered housing. Any great brand has a strong purpose towards serving the customer better."

Rema Vasan, EVP and a global client director at MSL and a Cannes Lions 2017 jury member, admits that she saw plenty of cause-related award submissions which were little more than "tactical", but insists that the best purpose-driven campaigns are worth commending.

"Authentic purpose-led marketing is deep-rooted in the brand's DNA and is consistent over time. As a jury member this year, I did indeed review several purpose-led campaign entries. However, only those few campaigns that led with authenticity, marrying a deep human insight with the brand purpose to positively impact the lives of consumers, were awards," says Vasan.

Citing MSL's recent global survey, 'Business Citizenship & Millennials', Vasan points out that 80% of young consumers taking part in the research across 17 countries said they believed brands having a clear purpose was "critical" in determining their purchase decision. "Today's consumers, particularly millennials, are more savvy than ever before in their understanding of brands, and their choices are not exclusively driven by quality and price," she says.

One of Vasan's favourite campaigns was Momondo's 'DNA Journey' winner of Gold Lion in the Travel, Transport & Leisure in which the Danish travel brand brought together dozens of people from around the world for a DNA test, and proved that we are more alike and more complex than we may sometimes believe. A patriotic Londoner, for instance, was dismayed to find out he was of German heritage. The video content has been viewed hundreds of millions of times.

"The brand was founded in 2006 on the vision that travel can break down the boundaries between people, and the brand purpose is to demonstrate that there are more things uniting than dividing us. The resulting videos were highly impressive. Importantly, the campaign yielded an increase of 2% market share. It is a great example of a brand doing well by doing good," she says.

"Authentic purpose-led marketing is timeless, but the way purpose is brought to life will continue to evolve, leveraging innovations and causes that are timely, yet play off the purpose. Leading with authenticity can continue to be a successful guiding principle for brands."

Indeed, many companies remain committed to the idea of authentic brand purpose. Diageo has suffered a misstep or two along the way, notably a 2011 strategy to centre its Baileys liqueur on the idea of "making women shine" a philosophy which was deemed patronising and promptly dropped in favour of focusing on Baileys as a ""co-conspirator in pleasure".

Speaking to the Holmes Report, Diageo's Sandys reaffirmed the message that he and CMO Saller had conveyed at Cannes namely that brand purpose is ""far from overblown"", and is ""yet to live up to its full potential".

"We truly believe it is entirely possible to do work that is good for business and good for society," Diageo global head of beer & Baileys Mark Sandys Diageo has carefully identified the most appropriate purpose for each of its brands. Johnnie Walker is tied to the idea of personal progress; Guinness, on the other hand, is about 'communion', a purpose it successfully celebrated with a Rugby World Cup sponsorship film it created with Gareth Thomas, the first high-profile player to come out as gay during his career. That campaign generated £8m in incremental sales, he claims.

"For brands to have lasting success and resonate consistently with consumers they must have a purpose beyond profit. Networked consumers know and care about what we say and do. There's no magic formula for defining and communicating this purpose, but in these turbulent times, it matters more than ever," says Sandys.

"Great brand purpose doesn't come for free. It takes money, it takes resolve, and to be truly sustainable it must grow your brand and show a healthy return. Ask yourself, do you have the resources to do this and properly? If not, make the business case for it. We truly believe it is entirely possible to do work that is good for business and good for society."

For agencies, the rise of brand purpose is positive news. Well-considered and strategically implemented campaigns linked to a fundamental brand truth deliver results both for the business, as well as when awards season comes around. However, the pitfalls for those seeking a quick 'win' on behalf of their clients especially one that cannot be backed up have never been greater.

Perhaps the final word should go to Jim Stengel, who created what has threatened to become a monster: "This is not corporate social responsibility, it's not cause marketing, and it's not a strategy for philanthropy; it's a business strategy. Your philanthropy can come out of it, just like your R&D and HR come out of it. But once you choose your purpose your mission everything else should come out of that."

Brand purpose has not reached its end-point; rather, it appears that time has been called on the cheap, imitation cause-related advertising which has made so many headlines in 2017.

This article was originally published on The Holmes Report.
Additional Blog

Food & Beverage: 2017's Top Conversation Starter

read more

Do you want to get in touch?