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on the agenda

Brand purpose may have lost its way in the marketing world

Why is purpose marketing on the wane? And does it still hold power and relevance? We ask Dove, Oatly as well as agency practitioners

By conor nichols

Forgetting the spot in which Kendall Jenner accomplished world peace by handing a protester a can of Pepsi, for years ‘purpose’ has extended beyond just a buzzword and helped brands build deeper connections with consumers and ultimately drive more sales.

Campaigns that had purpose at their core were celebrated and awarded for not only their effectiveness but also the part they played in enacting real change in society.

Last year, CALM’s ‘Last Photo’ campaign by adam&eveDDB and Dove’s '#TurnYourBack' campaign by Ogilvy stole the show at Cannes Lions. And this year, Cannes Lions has named Unilever its Creative Marketer of the Year -(Unilever iis a company that has been ringing the purpose bell for two decades now, with its Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign just turning 20-years-old).

However, the purpose-tide seems to have turned. Unilever’s new CEO Hein Schumacher told investors late last year that the company would cease to “force-fit” purpose to all of its brands in an apparent u-turn in strategy.

In 2023, it was also evident that the industry took a step away from purpose-led-marketing, instead choosing to lean into humour. The nation was in the mood for a laugh and an increasing amount of brands inserted more playfulness into their marketing. Acknowledging this shift, Cannes also decided to embrace its funny side, introducing a humour category for this year’s awards.

John Schoolcraft, global chief creative officer at Oatly, speaking at Advertising Week Europe 2024, emphasised the necessity of purposeful marketing. He said: “We’re constantly surrounded by messages that lack meaning, driven by metrics rather than mission. But to truly connect with people, marketing needs to be fearless and rooted in authenticity.”

Schoolcraft highlighted Oatly’s strategy of using its packaging as a canvas for their beliefs and eliminating the traditional marketing department to embed creativity throughout the business. “Every litre of oat milk sold over cow’s milk significantly reduces carbon emissions. This isn’t just a marketing angle; it’s a core part of who we are and why we exist. Purpose in marketing isn’t about what you say; it’s about what you do,” he added.

Alessandro Manfredi, chief marketing officer for Dove at Unilever, also provided insights, noting the pitfalls of the purpose trend. “There’s been an excess of everyone jumping on the purpose-thinking bandwagon, believing that proposing a purpose solves every challenge, problem, or opportunity for a company or brand. It’s not true,” he said.

Manfredi stressed that a strong business model is paramount, with purpose acting as a growth accelerator when integrated authentically. “For me, there are three fundamental conditions for purpose to work effectively: it needs to be embedded in your industry; be authentic; and be communicated effectively. Combining growth and profit becomes achievable when these are done correctly,” said Manfredi.

Has an industry-wide rise in investment in performance marketing also overshadowed brand purpose? Are clients less interested in general brand values and more intent on analysing the effectiveness of campaigns? This somewhat counteracts the fact that consumers still demand certain values from brands. Kantar recently found that 64 per cent of consumers believe that businesses have a responsibility to solve climate and environmental issues and 67 per cent of shoppers want to buy environmentally sustainable products.

Or has there been a shift in the popularity of purpose simply because some brands are better suited to the strategy than others? The initial fervour for brand purpose may have tempered but does it still hold significance when executed authentically, communicated effectively and integrated deeply within a business’ core values? We ask some agencies for their takes.

Martin Beverley, chief strategy officer, adam&eveDDB

I think Kantar’s recent research is an example of the difference between what people say and what people do.

Most people say they want to buy sustainable products, however, in reality, most people buy what they irrationally want, and also what’s in front of them at the right price.

With that in mind, most brands are more focused on winning the battle for head space and shelf space, especially in tough economic times.

That’s partly why I think the brand purpose bubble has burst. It’s also drifted away on the winds of marketing whim, without robust evidence to tether it.

Ultimately, when it comes to brand purpose (or frankly anything in this funny old industry) it has to be about what is right for your brand, your audience and your objectives.

If, as some people do, you define brand purpose as the noble act of rallying behind a societal or sustainable cause, then it can be a strong strategy for brands that have a cause at their heart and an audience who care about it.

However, for many other brands, I believe their definition of brand purpose should be more closely related to their commercial purpose. For example, there’s nothing wrong with a purpose that aims to ‘sell the most delicious ice cream to the people who love ice cream the most’. That feels like a delicious reason to exist to me.

After all, the purpose of brands is to be in service of the business.

Gen Kobayashi, chief strategy officer, EMEA, Weber Shandwick

I think purpose has been and will continue to be another effective tool for brands to drive growth, so I think purpose will remain on the agenda in the future.

However, I think HOW brands execute purpose strategies may start to change and what’s changing is the start point for purpose.

Brands can’t ignore the effect that multiple geopolitical crises have had on people’s lives and the implications of this from a marketing perspective. At The Weber Shandwick Collective, we carried out our first wave of a global quantitative and qualitative study, “What We Value: the Primacy of Personal”, to understand what people value from brands and four out five people told us that what they value and want from brands has dramatically changed in the last five years. This has mainly been driven by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. Our research told us that people are twice as likely to prioritise personal and emotional value such as “health”, “security” and “joy” over societal and social value. This has caused a shift in focus for brands to prioritise the “me” over the “we” for the audiences that matter most. Whilst this doesn’t mean anything as binary as the “end of brand purpose”, it just means that purpose needs to start close to home and with the individual before attempting to take on the world.

Matt Walters, planning partner, New Commercial Arts

Good corporate citizenship has become a condition of doing business - not simply because consumers demand it, it’s a requirement right through the supply chain.

So, in ESG terms, it’s at the forefront for many businesses.

Letting customers know what you’re doing somewhere within the experience is also pretty much a given.

How central purpose is to your brand idea is a different matter.

There was a rush to purpose-led marketing a few years ago, and for some organisations it became ‘the’ strategy.

The popular narrative right now is that purpose has had its day.

Some brands may feel it’s not differentiating if everyone’s at it. Others might be sensitive to accusations of cause-washing. And for some, it will have proven difficult to square away with the demands of ‘harder working’ messages and objectives.

However, there’s evidence out there that done-right brand purpose can be commercially effective.

It’s worked for Dove since before the P-word was a thing; new brands built on a purposeful premise have been met by an audience willing to pay for it.

Now, as always, it can be a way to make your brand and comms engaging, distinctive and salient.

If you half do it, or chop and change, it probably won’t work for you.

And that’s fine. It’s not ‘the’ way.

Don’t start with the solution, start with your problem.

And if you have to look too hard to find your purpose, you probably aren’t purpose-led.

Go back to the armoury and find another way to make your brand stand out.


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