What’s the point of purpose?

The latest marketing trend is a chance for brands to show their socially conscious credentials – but it has its hazards, writes David Burrows.

In May 2017 Heineken caused quite a stir with its Open Your World advert in which the brewer tackles how people talk to their political opposites. There is a feminist thrown together with a member of the “new right” and a climate change denier teamed up with an environmentalist, for example. In pairs, they work together to do various tasks before watching videos of their partner’s opposing points of view. But will they leave or thrash out their differences over a beer (Heineken, of course)?

The advert is just one of a number of “purpose-based” marketing campaigns that have left people positive and peeved in equal measure. From Pepsi and Unilever to Lloyds Bank and Apple, big corporates are falling over themselves to tell people that these days they’re about more than making profit.

“We want to become a brand that is purpose-driven, as ultimately this builds trust and is exactly what any customer should expect from a business like ours,” said the Tesco CEO, Dave Lewis, last year as he launched the supermarket’s campaign to tackle food waste. The Danone chief executive, Emmanuel Faber, is another who has been pushing purpose over profit. “A revolution is cooking – what are we going to do about it?” he asked at a Consumer Goods Forum meeting in June, as he spoke of a “broken” food system, the “timebomb” of wealth concentration and the “social injustice” of food inequality.

Are these statements contrived or do brands really care? Is there a point to purpose and if so how is it measured? Or is it just greenwash dreamed up by marketers?

“The days of brand image where you could say one thing and do another are over, and the task for a marketer today is about building brands that people can really believe in,” says Becky Willan, a former CSR manager at the Body Shop and the co-founder of brand purpose agency Given. “Successful brand building has become more than just product marketing – it’s about having a point of view on the world.”

Indeed, Heineken didn’t go for the well-trodden (and safer) promotional path of “my beer’s better than yours”. “It showed that [the company] understands this is a divided world and sees its role as helping people to talk to one another,” explains Paulina Lezama, the brand and purpose director of London-based creative consultancy Radley Yeldar.

In a survey of corporate leaders by Harvard Business Review Analytics and EY’s Beacon Institute, 89% said a strong sense of purpose drives employee satisfaction. What’s more, 84% said it can affect an organisation’s ability to transform (Faber’s point above) and 80% believe it helps increase customer loyalty.

This is certainly the case for those brands that have demonstrated a commitment to sustainability, according to research by Nielsen. “They outperform those that don’t,” the analysts reported – sales of goods from sustainable brands increased 4% in 2015, and fell 1% for all the others. They also discovered that 66% of shoppers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products – up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013.

A more recent poll, conducted in the UK, Germany, US and Brazil by data platform CitizenMe and brand consultants Wolff Olins, found that 41% of people believe companies “ought to be a force for positive change”. However, just 13% think businesses have managed it, because of their “preoccupation with profits”. What consumers say and what they do can be very different, especially when it comes to buying greener products, but there is something going on.

Unilever has claimed there’s a £853 billion opportunity for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear; a third of consumers are already buying from brands based on their social and environment impact. Millennials are a particular target for those promoting purpose – social or environmental, global or local.

In fact, the trend towards uncovering purpose among established brands like Heineken and Unilever is mainly a response to the success of new brands and startups that have emerged with a fully formed mission, says the B&B Studio strategy director, Lisa Desforges. “It’s a generational thing,” she explains. “These are millennial brands started by millennial entrepreneurs that reflect the needs and desires of millennial consumers. These brands understood the emerging desire for a more socially conscious approach to consumerism because their founders felt it too.”

That doesn’t mean established brands can’t have a purpose beyond profit, though. Desforges adds: “When Nike speaks out about racial diversity, it feels relevant for an urban sportswear brand. When Jigsaw defends immigration [as it did with a current high-profile campaign], it’s in line with what British fashion and style really means.”

In other words: purpose is an almost effortless part of the brand. For some, this suggests it’s just another way to talk about the values of the company. “I’ve been seeing [purpose] pop up everywhere,” says Edwina Hughes, the corporate responsibility director of Sodexo. “I feel like the jury is still out on it as a concept. What our investors want is to see us holding steady and doing something impressive.” It’s why the firm looked long and hard at what it should stand for given its size and stature and came up with three areas where it wanted to “push the needle” as Hughes puts it: waste, hunger and equality.

Sometimes purpose seems more effortless: Wonderbra, for instance, is in the business of self-confidence for women rather than selling lingerie. At the other end of the scale, perhaps, is Harley-Davidson – it exists to provide freedom and help men rebel, which raises the question: does purpose have to deliver social good?

It’s something Richard Storey, the chief global strategy officer of M&C Saatchi, has been grappling with.

He’s come to the conclusion that marketers have begun conflating the notion of “purpose” with the idea of “social good”. Brands need to be good in the sense of exceptional, outstanding and unusual – but not necessarily in the sense of worthwhile, righteous and valuable.

Mark Ritson, a marketing professor and columnist for Marketing Week magazine, has a similar view: while he supports all the viewpoints expressed in the Heineken ad (transgender rights, feminism and climate change), he “doesn’t see what this has to do with Heineken”. Florence Touzé, the author of the book “Marketing, Lost Illusions: Let’s Move on to a More Respectable Approach”, feels the big brands risk distancing their business from its original mission. “They should perhaps steer clear of such vast subjects,” she tells me.

Pepsi will no doubt wish it had. The drinks manufacturer’s 2017 campaign video featured the model Kendall Jenner who, coming across the scene of a protest (seemingly designed to reference the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans during a Black Lives Matter protest last year), offers one of the police officers a can of cola. It was widely criticised for “co-opting the imagery of protest movements to sell soda”, as the Guardian put it. The ad was pulled. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise.”

In a world where bad news spreads fast and thick, brands that jump on the purpose bandwagon too early can be in for a bumpy ride. “Many leaders make the mistake of treating purpose as a business strategy to win talent and customers,” noted John Izzo, the author of “The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good”, in a blogpost for Sustainable Brands in February.

“At face value, this seems reasonable. But there is a catch with this approach … employees and customers can see straight through the focus on purpose when it is used solely for the sake of business.”

Storey says he often has to give companies a “reality check” when they come in seeking a purpose. Others seem to have similar experiences. Becci Gould, a senior account director at Kin&Co, a global culture and communications consultancy, says she and her colleagues are “quite strict” about how they advise their clients – which include the likes of TripAdvisor and O2. “The worst thing you can do is ask your brand or PR agency to come up with your purpose,” she warns.

Purpose can’t be rolled out like an IT system – it’s more emotional, suggests one expert, but that doesn’t mean it’s immeasurable. Every year for the past three years Radley Yeldar has produced a “fit for purpose index”, which lists the top 100 brands that are best-placed to put purpose into practice. The analysis covers everything from whether the purpose addresses a human or world need to how it’s championed by the CEO and filtered to every corner of the business (think of the Nasa janitor who, when asked by John F Kennedy what he was doing, responded with: “Well, Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”)

Unilever (89%) came top, followed by Lloyds Banking Group (88%) and Philips (86%). What sets the first 10 apart is that they’ve set key performance indicators, metrics and targets against the purpose. This must be at the heart of it all – without measurement the brand has no credibility. Tom Cumberlege, an associate director of the Carbon Trust, puts it like this: “It’s great for a business to have an environmental purpose, on carbon emissions for example. But the crunch is whether its targets are aligned with those the world is trying to achieve through the Paris Agreement. If they’re not, then surely that’s not purposeful.”

Lezama insists the companies that “get it” are growing in number. They’re trying to use their resources and capabilities to do something better, and gathering the evidence to prove it. “They’re trying to inject the credibility the private sector needs,” she says, “and as the penny drops it feels like companies are being a lot more genuine.” That doesn’t mean they can’t still make a profit, though.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by IEMA’s Transform, December 2017.

 

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