Thought Leadership

Have we reached peak purpose in marketing communications?

The global climate strike has placed the climate emergency at the very top of the agenda, yet the role of purpose in marketing remains debatable.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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Why are you at work today? The world is burning. Our children have been screaming fire. While we’ve covered our ears. Business as usual. I’m out of office today, striking with them.

This isn’t perhaps the typical out of office auto-response you would expect to receive from an advertising agency. Yet if you email Uncommon Creative Studio tomorrow this is the response you should expect to receive.

This May 1.4 million children around the world walked out of school to highlight the climate emergency; they asked adults to join them next time. That moment is this Friday 20th September which is poised to become the biggest day of climate action. Chief executives and founders from a string of the UK’s biggest and brightest agencies have signed up to support the strike, as well as launching an open brief ‘create and strike’ calling on creatives to use their talent to support the movement.

Yet despite this groundswell of support, an inherent tension lies at the heart of an industry rooted in driving consumption when over-consumption is increasingly one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. Privately some in the industry warn that purpose has already peaked, that it is a ‘distraction’ and brands would be wise to focus on sales targets and pure-play brand campaigns as opposed to promotion lofty environmental or social ideals.

An inherent problem with this approach is that it ignores the fundamental shift in culture and the moral responsibility of business as a whole. Purpose, profit and planet are fast becoming the three most important pillars in both marketing and business at large. If in the past the industry faced criticism of ‘greenwashing’, many in the industry believe that its future will increasingly rely on ensuring purpose and planet are on an equal footing with profit across their entire supply chains. Not just in their creative output.

In the midst of this fundamental shift we asked a range of industry experts, have we reached peak purpose in marketing communications?

If a brand isn’t living up to its purpose beyond its comms, it will be called out for it, and rightly so.

Emma Gardner

Emma Gardner

Emma Gardner, ELVIS.jpg

Managing Partner

ELVIS

No, but it’s easy to get turned off by it. The industry has long debated brand purpose, and the conclusion is clear. If a brand isn’t living up to its purpose beyond its comms, it will be called out for it, and rightly so. But when met with cries of purpose-washing, instead of throwing their hands in the air and giving up on it entirely, brands should be doubling down on making that purpose a reality.  

Delivering on purpose authentically often requires major systemic change, which is by no means cheap, quick or easy to deliver. Take the M&S Back to School campaign, featuring uniforms for children with disabilities. A great idea, but M&S came under fire for launching such a range and using disabled children in their ads, when in fact they had no toilets or changing rooms for disabled shoppers in their stores. Of course, this is not something they can address overnight, but this should not deter them. Acknowledging their shortfall and getting ahead of it could have done the trick. Pledging to tackle the issue store-by-store over a period of time would have been a more powerful and authentic response.

We haven’t reached peak purpose, as long as there is concrete action behind it. As agencies, it’s our responsibility to help drive that action as much as it to communicate that purpose in our creative.

Richard Medley

Richard Medley, Wild Card.jpg

Managing Director

Wild Card

No. There is nothing wrong with brand ambition that comes with heart and soul to do good. But there is everything wrong with poorly thought out bandwagon strategies that don’t look at something in the round, which is where tipping point questions arise. The same goes for sampling without brand theatre, or influencer campaigns based on a media buy and no relationship. At best peak noise (still bad), at worst peak irritation and torpedoed credibility.

The problem around perception of peak purpose is often marketing people, and our love of a great story. Great storytelling is engaging, authentic, real world. Lazy storytelling is headlines only, disingenuous and frankly random. Smart purpose needs to come from listening to the people who work for the brand first across the business. Working from shared values, experiences, and understanding all elements of the business chain that might shape (or help avoid) a purpose strategy. But don’t force feed the ambition if no answers arise.

If potential purpose does present itself, this is when marketing thinking should kick in. It shouldn’t be marketing created, but it should be marketing curated. Nurtured and brought to life over time. Positively commercialised to help reach the objective of making a difference. Just not lab made, trend inspired, or ad concept fuelled. Then we deliver on piquing audience interest, not on peaking around brand credibility.

The big difference between those brands who have stepped in successfully and not, is that it takes more than purpose to be purposeful. It takes commitment.

Laura Jordan Bambach

Laura Jordan Bambach

Laura Jordan Bambach, Mr President.jpg

Chief Creative Officer

Mr President

Brands embracing purpose has risen exponentially over the last few years, encouraged in part by appealing to an audience that expects more, and is willing to do the research, as well as a global climate where government is stepping away from its traditional commitments to the social and environmental fabric of society, leaving a clear space for brands to step in and help shape the future using their most powerful transformative tool: creativity. 

The big difference between those brands who have stepped in successfully and not, is that it takes more than purpose to be purposeful. It takes commitment. A commitment to change, to stand up for beliefs in the event of detractors and trolls, and to genuinely put in place the ability to deliver on their message. To do, not just say.

There’s still plenty of room for brands to create truly impactful work with purpose and commitment at its core, and I’m excited to see that our industry can use our superpower, making complex ideas simple, for an audience, to create both love for brands, proper dialog not lip service, and also real change in the world. 

Ed Staples

Ed Staples, Red Consultancy.jpg

Planning Director

Red Consultancy

The easy answer is ‘yes’. No-one in agency comms wants to look like they are behind the curve. The cynical backlash has started. Spoof videos are in circulation and online purpose-marketing generators crank out fake campaign ideas. However, it’s more likely ‘no’. Purpose-led campaigns are still cleaning up at awards ceremonies and there’s no shortage of agency slide decks making the case for purpose in driving greater campaign effectiveness. There are plenty of people still yet to clamber on board the crowded ‘brandwagon’.

For us, this is the most important point. Is your link to purpose a short-term fling or a long-term commitment? There are campaigns which are the kneejerk reactions of marketers spooked by the rise of the ‘conscious consumer’. Purpose is worn like a temporary badge designed to catch the fleeting attention of the audience. You might get away with it but if you don’t create lasting change, you’re leaving yourself open to attack by a smart, socially connected public, never mind the media.

Then there are campaigns which are simply eye-catching expressions of a purpose which has genuinely run through an organisation over time. A great example of the latter was the work we did here at Red for Ecover. The business has championed a greener lifestyle for decades but was in danger of being overlooked in the wake of noisy campaigns from organisations who’d only recently signed up to the ‘war on plastic’. We needed to give the client a bold and unique platform to cut-through and talk to the wider public about recycling. So, we launched The Ecover Rubbish Café. This was an award-winning pop-up where you paid for your food and drink with plastic waste and learnt about recycling and how to cut down on single-use plastic.

Coming from Ecover the activity had a robustness to it which meant it could stand up to scrutiny from both the cynical media and savvy shopper. This sort of effective, well-constructed ‘purpose comms’ will never fall out of fashion.

Brands need to find ways to better meet customer need beyond the mere product offering in this world of hyper competition.

Cheryl Calverley

Cheryl Calverley

Cheryl Calverley, eve Sleep.jpg

CMO

eve sleep

I’m going to be controversial here. I posit that we have not reached ‘peak purpose’. Indeed, I’m going to say that our brands are no more, or no less purposeful than they ever were. If you replace ‘purpose’ in any brand key with ‘customer need’, brand strategy still follows the same principles it has always followed. Very simply, identify a customer need, and meet it. What has changed, or more accurately, evolved, is the demands and needs of our customers. Quite rightly, as society has matured, as generations have grown up with the ability to shop instantly, cheaply and globally, customers are now demanding more from their brands than just the right product at the right price.

For years, by dint of geography, convenience and lack of market transparency, brands have been resting on their laurels, able to focus on nothing more than developing products that deliver better than the one next to them on the shelf in the local store. And the brand strategy battle, if we’re honest, was for distribution, and eye-catching differentiation, assuming the product itself basically functioned to give the customer the right value exchange.

Barriers to entry were high; with enough investment and some first mover advantage, you could hold your distribution territory and keep out all comers. So quality was squeezed, cash became king, and the consumers had to simply suck up some of the hidden nasties that sat behind that oh so chirrupy packaging if they wanted their shampoo, latest fashion or sugary drink. The revolution that we have undergone in the past 10 years, and yes, I do use that description advisedly, is one of an extreme escalation of competition. Barriers to entry are now nigh on zero in practically every major category. Consumers can trial and return products with abandon, and without ever leaving the comfort of their sofa. And they can compare and contrast a myriad of offerings in the most niche markets.

I was reflecting on this as I sat in bed on Sunday evening comparing over 40 pairs of leather trousers. Leather trousers. 40. There’s not a shop in the land that would consider stocking that sort of depth of range in such a niche product. No, I didn’t buy any. Mutton. Lamb. So now the consumers are asking for more. They have a greater ‘need’. Not only the ‘right’ product, and 38 of the 40 would probably meet that brief, but a product you can trust, can believe in, in a dodgy world of low barriers to entry, shonky new ‘e-commerce’ businesses springing up daily and internet shopping straight from your algorithmically driven newsfeed.

Brands are key here and become ever more important as the markets fragment. But brands need to find ways to better meet customer need beyond the mere product offering in this world of hyper competition. So, they seek to meet the consumer need for added trust with…brand purpose. We haven’t reached peak purpose. We simply have marketers responding to their market.

Joe Wade

Joe Wade, Don't Panic.jpg

Founder & Executive Creative Director

Don't Panic

In an age of the belief buying, the time for tokenism and greenwashing is over. Consumers today might be conscious, but they are also experts at detecting bullshit, however much polish or glitter has been applied. Purposeful advertising is therefore slightly pointless taken in isolation.

Meaningful purpose translates with authenticity when it is rooted in a company’s practices, i.e. supply line, manufacturing, HR etc. rather than relying on a creative agency to ‘polish a turd’. For example, any purpose-driven marketing from the likes of Shell and big oil companies is reprehensible given that only a tiny portion of their turnover is invested in renewables. The agency always ends up pumping the minuscule renewable in a sort of, ‘Hey, well at least we’re trying guys’ kind of way.

Agencies can be helpful in this space as long as they have a broader remit and the right personnel to help, for instance sustainability consultants to advise on changes to a business as a whole. Advertising is a valid part of that process as long as the business is aiming for substantive change, not tokenism. And, if more agencies choose to work with clients who have purpose baked into their practice, we might have a chance of leaving the world a better place than we found it.  

Purpose calls you to account, demanding positive action every day. It’s the beginning of your journey, not the culmination. 

Nadya Powell

Nadya Powell

Nadya Powell, Utopia.jpg

Co-Founder

Utopia

I’d say we’ve reached peak pointless purpose. True brand purpose is still important; recent Edelman studies show nearly two thirds of consumers buy on the basis of their beliefs, and 57% are ready to buy or boycott brands based on their social and political views. But, due to the dominance of pointless purpose, consumers are deeply cynical of brands and suspect inauthenticity, badging and gimmicks.

And they’re right to be cynical. Purpose is too often an artfully written manifesto rather than an embedded philosophy that guides every action of the business. And with Gen Z especially in mind, you need purpose embedded by leaders who obsess about the ethics of the business: supply chain, inclusive culture, positive work practices. The true test; if you pin down a purpose and nothing changes in your business, you’re simply not doing it right. Purpose calls you to account, demanding positive action every day. It’s the beginning of your journey, not the culmination. 

If you’re disingenuous, you’ll alienate your consumers. Build brands that put something back into the real world, taking purpose beyond marketing and into challenging, meaningful and sustained action.

Stuart Wood

Stuart Wood, Missouri Creative.jpg

Partner & Creative Director

Missouri Creative

It’s tempting to be cynical about brands that communicate purpose but as I write this, an unelected buffoon is hijacking our democracy, the world’s biggest super power is planning to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord and the 8th richest economy is supporting the systematic burning of the Amazon rainforest. In short, there is a distinct lack of trust in our institutions and brands can, and some might argue, have an obligation to, fill the vacuum. I believe that what is good for business can still be good for the planet and its people; you can be still be a capitalist and an environmentalist.

And consumers feel the same way; 30% say they want brands to take a stand on social or political issues and nearly 50% of all of Unilever’s growth is coming from brands that have a higher purpose. Forget that it used to be called CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and was the responsibility of the HR function, it’s now clearly in the marketing departments remit and long may that remain. However, there is no room here for tokenism; as long as brands walk the talk, I know I’d rather spend my money on products that can blend profit and purpose.

Consumers are seemingly becoming ever wiser to brands professing inauthentic purpose.

Christopher Kollat

Christopher Kollat

Christopher Kollat, Monotype.jpg

Managing Director UK & DACH

Monotype

We live it seems in increasingly polarised times where on every conceivable issue, everyone is either on one side of the fence or the other. The uncontentious middle ground that brands have traditionally clung to is disappearing fast, and those brands willing to take a stand on social, cultural and political issues appear to be reaping financial benefits. During Nike’s 2018 "Just Do It" campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, Nike's stock rose 6.25%; that’s an increase in the company’s market cap of $6.38 billion.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that 64% of consumers who have an established relationship with a brand cite “shared values” as the main reason for that relationship. But is it possible to “share values” with a detergent brand? Perhaps the biggest indicator that we’ve reached ‘peak purpose’ is the rapidly emerging backlash against so-called “woke washing”. Consumers are seemingly becoming ever wiser to brands professing inauthentic purpose.

For many brands, it’s challenging to identify a purpose that’s consistent with their core business and resonates with all their customers. Rather than try to emulate socially experienced brands like Nike or Always with high-profile, purpose-driven campaigns, many brands would do better to sweat the small stuff and focus instead on developing an authentic brand voice and delivering it consistently, not just in ad campaigns, but across every single brand channel and customer touchpoint. That relentless commitment to the customer experience is a purpose every brand can embrace, and every consumer values, no matter which side of the fence they occupy.

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