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Purpose Before Profit? A Distracting Question For Advertisers

Unusually for insight mined from the dusty vaults of the IPA’s Effectiveness Databank, the latest research from the trade body on brand purpose has attracted no small amount of controversy

By ian darby

The researcher Peter Field had compared the impact of purpose-based campaigns against non-purpose case studies. This yielded the top line finding that purpose-based entries on the Databank actually had less of an impact on “very large business effects” for brands than non-purpose examples.

The study didn’t end there. Digging further into the seam, Field distinguished between “strongly executed brand purpose cases” and “weakly executed ones”. An approach that seemed confusing at best and, in the minds of cynics at least, loaded the dice in favour of purpose.

This wasn’t the essential issue, though, according to Will Grundy, the head of planning at adam&eveDDB. He says: “The research brings up more questions than it gives answers. It forces us to question our understanding of purpose and whether or not we’re framing it far too narrowly. The emphasis on purposeful campaigns being what brand purpose is about feels like a very unsophisticated way of understanding what purpose can, and should, be.”

In light of this view, it seems the right time to ask whether putting purpose before profit has become a damaging distraction, and to consider how brands can really get purpose right.

Xavier Rees chief executive at Havas London, says that it shouldn’t be a case of putting purpose before profit but balancing the two in harmony, an approach he argues that will assuage any concerns about “purpose-washing”.

And consumer research bears him out here in showing a close link between purpose and purchase intent. Some 72 per cent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers prefer to buy from sustainable brands (Ogilvy/Canvas 8), and 64 per cent of all consumers to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose as well as profit (Havas, Meaningful Brands).

"Truth and transparency"

Rees thinks that stronger purpose-based communication is based on the values of “truth and transparency” but that this must be built on wider truths within a company: “This is where it can’t just be a confection, it can’t be something concocted by the marketing department to tap into a consumer need for brands to act with purpose. That’s where purposeful marketing gets a bad name.”

Andre “Dedé” Laurentino, chief creative officer, Ogilvy UK, who has worked on prominent purpose-based brands including Unilever’s Dove, points out that “truth” is where the real danger lies for businesses walking down the purpose path. His view is that brands which take the easy route, of simply expressing their purpose through communications (“we just say we care about things, the trick is done”) are one social media post away from disaster: “That disaster being truth, because people can see through to what your brand is really about.”

He argues that companies need to view the wider picture: “This could be a CSR commitment, a corporate point of view, or from a brand or product point of view. Ideally, in the best-case scenario, the three are bound together. The secret is, the more aligned everything is the better.”

Will Grundy at adam&eveDDB believes that this emphasis on integration within a business shows that when purpose is used “as a tool for strategic decision making, internal organisation and galvanisation, innovation and NPD, supply-chain issues, using it as the lens through which you make decisions, then it’s a remarkably powerful and, more often than not, profitable thing to do.”

Motivating effect

Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom UK, observes that fewer purpose-based campaigns were entered in the 2020 IPA awards versus 2018, “but what shone out was the motivating effect they had on the retailers or employees, and that’s the bit you can’t dismiss.”

The employee focus is especially vital, she says, because under-25s have different values and behaviours to many others in the workforce, and are highly motivated by working for a company that has a strong sense of purpose. This was something identified previously in Unerman’s book, Belonging (co-authored with Kathryn Jacob) and, she says, is one of the strengths of the new IPA research: “Having a sense of purpose is not only a great way of enhancing your distinctive brand asset but will in addition motivate your employees.”

Unerman argues that this is important because exceptional businesses rely “on their employees giving a bit more than they’re contracted to… The business case has to go beyond what you’re paying them.”

CEO involvement

Laurentino emphasises the importance of CEO involvement in ensuring that a purpose-based approach is successful. He mentions Unilever’s former chief executive Paul Polman being closely involved with a corporate campaign for Unilever (2014’s “The Way Kids See It”), focused on children running projects to help their communities. Polman put the marketing team in touch directly with the families of young people across the world: “I know them by name,“ he told the people presenting the idea. “This is when the CEO makes a big difference,” says Laurentino.

Rees argues that true purpose is frequently already “baked” within organisations, it’s “often the job of an agency or marketing team to find the things that are true about the business, and very often that’s the biggest contribution we can make.” He cites Havas London’s work with Carling as an example. The brand had never previously talked about its unbroken 150-years of production in Burton upon Trent. The result was the “Made Local” positioning, which not only led to advertising campaigns but also funds and initiatives for communities and pubs.

Looking beyond these individual brand initiatives, a successful pursuit of purpose in the long-term could involve reaching a new understanding of the shifting link with profit. Professor Byron Sharp recently said that marketers should “never forget” that companies with high market capitalisations “have them because investors believe they have a future and will generate sales and profits in 10 to 20 years’ time.”

Adam&eveDDB’s Will Grundy, however, counters this position: “The reality is that in the next 10 to 20 years, unless businesses behave more purposefully, unless they get their act together from a sustainability and environmental perspective, there aren’t going to be any returns to be had because we’ll be dealing with significantly bigger issues.”

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