Are leaders underestimating the impact of generative AI?
Industry leaders have their say on the AI revolution
Meaningful campaigns are able to have both a positive societal impact and drive business growth.
Last year Hellman’s mayonnaise was thrust into the spotlight following criticism from investors that it had placed purpose over profit. Yet, the year ended with Hellman’s becoming Unilever’s fastest-growing brand, showing that for all the controversy something in the strategy seems to be working.
For consumers, knowing that the products they buy have a positive social impact has become increasingly important. While many may argue that the cost of living crisis has seen affordability be prioritised over all else, in many cases it is actually about good value. So if a product is similarly priced but has a more positive social impact it becomes a no-brainer for consumers. Although recent research from Media Bounty underlined that other factors do continue to play a significant role in purchase decisions
While cynicism around purposeful marketing is rife and accusations of ‘wokeness’ circle brands that put purpose at the centre of their marketing strategies, the fact remains that purpose and profit are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact countless meaningful campaigns are able to generate increased revenue for brands and make a positive societal impact.
For businesses looking for quick wins in the face of permacrisis, purpose-driven campaigns may not be able to create the quick turnaround pay off. However, the long-term brand-building opportunities and the proven sustained business growth results show that purpose and profit are intrinsically linked. So, we asked industry experts: ‘Is the profit versus purpose debate outdated in an era in which having a positive social impact is table stakes for consumers?’
If only life was this simple.
Customers only buying brands with positive social impact.
Brands putting purpose over profit.
Job done. World saved. Utopia achieved.
The reality is a little more complicated.
There are a very committed group of consumers who will take the time to research and make informed decisions about the brands they are using. But for the majority, there are different priorities. Especially with the pressures of the CoLC. Is it cheap? Does it work? Do I/ my family like it? And, of course, there’s habit.
So I don’t think we should take it for granted that it’s table stakes just yet. (For what it’s worth - I think this will change, and brands have a huge role to play in making it table stakes for the masses).
But let’s say it is.
Is the profit vs. purpose debate outdated?
No - In fact it’s never been more relevant. But it needs to be more nuanced.
I believe a brand should have a purpose, but not something vague or disconnected from their business or their customers. Draw 3 overlapping circles on a blank page. Write ‘what we do’ in one, ‘what our customers care about’ in another, and ‘what the wider world would appreciate us doing’ in the last one. Then work it out. And do it properly, truthfully and transparently.
Yes. With a but…
Purpose and financial performance haven’t been mutually exclusive for a long time. Many brands who are true to their values across all functions of their business see purpose act as a multiplier for profits.
But this often requires a greater upfront cost and long-term commitment to see results. Great for newer companies with the operational agility to react to changing market behaviours or the investor appetite to gamble on the next unicorn… for established businesses looking to change there is no escaping the fact that performance is reported quarterly.
Big brands make promises for the future but in the short-term many will still only act on the cheapest and best-sounding initiatives – or show off commitments without mentioning that they were reacting to legislation. I don’t see purpose-washing going away any time soon – and it can only be a good thing to keep the pressure on this conversation. Although it could do with a reframe…
Conscious advertisers can show that purpose and financial security don’t have to be mutually exclusive for consumers either – and influence them to demand genuine commitments from brands. The more the market votes with its wallet the quicker positive social impact will become table stakes for brands too.
It saddens me a little when purpose is treated as some kind of absolute entity, a binary consideration of whether one has a purpose or not.
I mean, not as much as A Dog’s Journey saddens me, or when you know Mountstuart is going to die at the end of Any Human Heart, but it saddens me nonetheless.
Because, like most things in life, purpose comes in many shapes and sizes. That which comes from within an organisation, to that which comes out of an awayday in Slough, over sushi. From that which concerns itself with doing positive good to that which is simply concerned with an absence of negatives (we don’t discriminate, we don’t burn trees or people for that matter, we don’t light up the skies every day like a nuclear storm). From that which is always on to that which only pops up, in full pages, long copy, during Mental Health week. From that which is a vision, one that reflects a unique and powerful brand and customer connection to that which is a short-term strategy and an investment in creative showboating. In short, one that is authentic to one that is opportunistic.
Because when it’s done well, when it’s done right, the debate changes from one less concerned with profit versus purpose to one about profit through purpose and where the lengths we go to in pursuit of this purpose relate to the depth of profit enjoyed.
Leeds Utd saddens me too.
With the rise of conscious consumerism, the traditional tension between profit and purpose is evolving – with the two becoming intricately linked. The increased transparency and mass scale brought about by social media means consumers are re-evaluating the factors that influence their purchasing decisions. They expect more from the brands they support.
We must acknowledge this shift. Brands with social purpose at the core are gaining traction, even recent studies show they can end up being more profitable in the long-term. But purpose can’t be just a marketing tactic – consumers can see right through. Brands must find that sweet spot between driving business impact and demonstrating a genuine commitment to making a positive impact.
The key question is, what can this positive impact look like? A recent GWI study has revealed the meaning of ‘purpose’ seems to be evolving, as brand priorities shift for consumers. Environmentalism, sustainability and supporting local communities remain important, however brands openly supporting good causes and social issues are very quickly moving down the ranks (Q2 2022 vs Q2 2020). And at the top? Listening to consumer feedback is now ranking 1st, followed by improving the consumer’s day-to-day life.
Tackling this is essential to successfully navigate this changing landscape and drive business impact in a world where purpose and profit are closer than ever before. This means thinking audience-first and developing a conscious marketing approach that is attuned to the consumer’s needs and expectations, but still feels natural to the brand ethos and DNA, and ultimately delivers measurable results.
We've observed an industry shift in the profit and purpose paradigm – motivating progress over cashing-in has become less of a binary debate, and more of an intentional and impact-driven default. Both emerging and established businesses are increasingly rejecting performative and profit-led action in favour of authentic change and creative innovation, with triple bottom line thinking becoming a mainstream standard rather than a sidelined opt-in or opt-out. We’re treating profit, people, and the planet as equal and independent stakeholders in their own right, and for good reason.
As a creative community, we’re beginning to reframe the vanity metrics of profit as simple indicators of financial growth, and not as an accurate measure of meaningful progress. Cutting ties with the faux authority of numbers, data, and statistics relieves us of futile and self-serving business goals, repositioning success as positive decision-making motivated by social and environmental good. We’re rendering greed obsolete; replacing our hunger for capital with an appetite for ethical processes, moral foundations, and fair outcomes.
Our global understanding of profit is now understood in the context of transparency – consumers are demanding the financial and ethical honesty they’re entitled to, with a desire to make the same good decisions we’re advocating for as a wider industry. By adjusting from short to long-term business thinking supported by our impact-driven commitments, we begin to generate trust and nurture relationships with end recipients, building an industry and economy that leans into ethics authentically, and purpose organically.
For me there's a question mark hovering over the 'versus'. Are profit and purpose mutually exclusive? In fact, were they ever? I'm sure most business leaders today would argue that the two are inextricably bound together. As a design business, specialising in health and wellbeing, we have a clearly stated purpose to make a positive impact on people's lives. It's a shared commitment that determines the kind of work we do, and how we go about our business – always ethically, always responsibly. It's also become one of the key reasons our clients – and indeed our own people – choose to work with us. In this respect, our purpose feeds directly into our strategy for growth and supports the long-term financial future for our business. So for us, it's not a question of purpose or profit; it's about working with purpose and building a financially sound business that rewards us for the work we do and allows us to carry on making a difference.
This is an outdated debate, but not for the reasons implied by the question.
The exam question presupposes that people are aligning their spending with companies that share their values or that behave ethically, and even actively boycotting those who don’t. This is misguided for three reasons.
Firstly Peter Field — the godfather of effectiveness — revealed in his IPA EffWorks presentation that on average advertising campaigns based on a brand purpose strategy were less profitable than those following a more conventional approach. There are stellar exceptions — step forward Dove — but we need to recognise that taking a purpose approach stacks the odds against you if your aim is maximising profit.
But profit shouldn’t be the metric here! Social purpose ipso facto refers to an enterprise’s activities which are not aimed at the usual business objective of making profits. A principle isn’t a principle unless it costs you money. Raising the spectre of profit rather misses the point.
Finally, we need to recognise that assuaging customers may not be the objective of purpose-driven marketing. Clients are under pressure from all sorts of constituencies to fulfil their ESG responsibilities. It may come from employees, their supply chain, distributors and especially investors. Purpose-driven advertising may be the most direct and high-profile way of demonstrating corporate commitment, regardless of consumer response.
In short, profit is irrelevant in this context, and to some extent so are consumers. We need a broad and pragmatic approach to help clients navigate this tricky topic.
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