Does brand purpose still have a purpose?

10 July 2019 / Pete Camponi

Brand purpose was a big topic of discussion at this year’s Cannes Lions festival, as it has been for the last several years.

I listened to some debates with interest and an open mind. At one interesting roundtable event hosted by The Drum, a senior marketing executive from Unilever spoke of the unintended increase of plastic consumption as a consequence of their Dove Real Women campaign. Her excellent talk struck a chord with the audience. This campaign has and continues to be a global success, but it seems one good deed leads to something else that needs responding to – so be careful what you wish for.

‘Acts not Ads’ is a phrase heard a number of times at Cannes and with the focus on sustainability, clearly it’s evident that Unilever have to act on the plastic issue if it is positioning itself as an honest, conscious brand.

Smaller cosmetics brands like Lush is doing good things; providing refill stations for liquids in its stores and selling products such as shampoo, normally packaged in plastic, in solid bars, for example.

The problems with social conscience being so frequently used, are that the attempts seem disingenuous, like an afterthought, or just some other means of drawing attention to a brand; something we must be doing to show we care.

Don’t get me wrong, it is good that brands continue to use some of their marketing budgets for a higher purpose, but when that purpose is born within the walls of a marketing departments or agencies and is held back by the constraints of ROI there will be problems.

Whilst it might give the creative department an opportunity to create an award-worthy piece of content, savvy consumers will smell a rat, prepared to reject the brand(s) found to be guilty of ‘green-washing’.

It is one of the responsibilities of agencies and creative departments to question briefs that have brand purpose as a bolt on. Is it relevant to the particular campaign? Is it believable within the context that this campaign is set? Would I find it believable if the ad was aimed at me? If you answer no, then the consumer won’t believe it either.

To create fans and loyal purchasers amongst ‘belief-driven’ consumers (a phrase coined by Edelman in their 2018 brand study which uncovered that this category of consumers is now in the majority in every market they surveyed across all ages and income levels) avoid alienating them and ensure that your brand lives up to the standards it has set for itself. Did Gillette really think they could get away with being the ‘best a man can get’ while making their women’s razors pink and charging more for them in the social media world we all now inhabit? I think not. First and foremost, purpose must be a genuine proposition relevant to the value of a brand.

When David Hieatt is asked why he had started a jeans company in an anonymous Welsh town, his answer is a simple one, ‘To get 400 people their jobs back’. Cardigan used to be home to the UK’s biggest jeans factory. When it closed, 400 of Britain’s best jeans makers lost their jobs, so he and his wife started a company with the purpose of getting those people their jobs back by doing one thing well - making jeans.

Again, when asked how he was going to market the company with little money, he replied, ‘we may not have any money, but we have creativity and we have the internet’. With a fantastic product, a brilliantly curated newsletter, razor-like intuition for customer relationship building and a creative use of social media, Hiut Denim is selling jeans, collecting influential customers along the way – Meghan Markel being the most famous of them to date. With this royal seal of approval there is no reason why the brand won’t eventually live up to and possibly exceed its original purpose.

It’s not impossible to combine good old-fashioned selling with a believable sense of purpose. Look at TOMS shoes. Their original One for One campaign could be seen as a buy one-get-one-free strategy repurposed for their good cause.

Sorry to make the same idea sound so promotion-like, but… Imagine a major food retailer spinning a ‘two for one’ offer where the second of the products is offered to people who struggle to feed their families. A good deal, without the lofty ideal of trying to solve world peace.

I suspect that this is a debate that will run, not only because the world is facing many challenges related to climate change, and creeping sense of nationalism in many countries. Indeed, as people become more frustrated and untrusting of governments, an increasing number of consumers are looking to the CEOs of big businesses to take the lead on social issues. Brands, big and small, have a responsibility along with marketing departments and agencies to do what they can to have a positive impact whilst successfully selling products and services, because we know the halo effect of this, done properly, is proven to pay dividends.

So, is brand purpose still a purpose worth pursuing? Done with authenticity and honesty, absolutely.