Marketing's Culture War: Purpose, Conviction, and the Quest for Relevance in Brand Building
On the cultural battleground between authenticity and supersaturation, what does purpose mean for marketers now?
06 September 2023
After years of purpose-driven marketing taking center stage, one might wonder if we have become purposed out. Has purpose-driven marketing finally found its rightful place in the marketing mix, or are we (still) merely overusing it for the sake of having a purpose?
For evidence, take awards shows. In recent times, purpose campaigns have dominated many industry awards, sometimes overshadowing truly original campaigns with their overwhelming results. But do judges still get swayed because of a good cause, or have we now struck the right balance? Cannes Lions 2022 saw the majority of Grand Prix winners focused on purpose-driven campaigns, whereas 2023 supposedly levelled the playing field out.
Purpose remains incredibly relevant and powerful, of course, when implemented thoughtfully and authentically. But marketers are increasingly aware that they must carefully consider how purpose aligns with their core offering and addresses genuine challenges in people's lives. The industry has witnessed a shift towards more interrelated roles and purposes, leading to a better balance in purpose marketing strategies.
As the industry seeks that final equilibrium for purpose's true place within marketing, we ask creatives and strategists whether purpose has genuinely found its purpose.
Alex Lewis, co-founder, Revolt
Marketing has its own culture war - Purpose. Those stoking the debate rarely arrive without an agenda, whether it’s an investor demanding change, a journalist chasing headlines or a leader seeking a profile.
Most of the arguments from both sides ignore the complexity of brand building. The fact is, purpose can be both an effective tool and a distracting exercise. Purpose isn’t the enemy, but the polarity of the analysis most certainly is.
In the early naughties a debate raged in the marketing community about a new fad - digital. Clients, creatives and commentators were quick to proclaim the emerging channels as both saint and sinner.
Over the next 20 years as digital moved from being a channel to a tactic to a mindset that no business was immune to. Which isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of losers along the way. But its significance and permanence is reinforced by the fact digital transformation has sat as the number one concern of CMOs for years.
Purpose can be seen in a similar light. Conviction in a Purpose-led approach can’t come at the expense of business fundamentals. It won’t solve every marketing challenge (just as it shouldn’t be used as the scapegoat for poor performance when other factors are at play). Successful application comes down to a rigour and responsibility that asks not just whether Purpose is the right tool, but how that tool should be applied.
Not every brand that makes a positive impact in their marketing will reap the benefits. Just as we have seen throughout the digital revolution, the era of Purpose transformation will see many expensively assembled mistakes along the way. The winners will continue to be those with the foresight to grab the opportunity and the veracity to ensure it's seized in the right way.
Will Hanmer-Lloyd, head of strategy, Total Media Group
Purpose-driven marketing is often hailed as a panacea for brands looking to connect with consumers on a deeper level, yet research consistently indicates that it is usually less effective than alternative marketing approaches. This is not just due to consumer apathy, but because as consumers, we often fail to align our actions with our values. The "say vs. do" gap is exemplified by our simultaneous criticism of companies like Amazon while continuing to patronise them, or why only a tiny fraction of the world trade is fair trade. Ease, quality, value for money, salience, and many other factors are much more important in actually influencing our behaviour.
The morality of purpose-driven marketing is often questionable, with many companies employing it as a superficial façade, attempting to whitewash dubious records or practices. Consequently, it can risk being detrimental to a brand's reputation if it draws attention to this discrepancy.
There are, of course, some exceptions. Purpose-driven marketing can be justified if a brand has a genuinely differentiating feature rooted in a greater company purpose. It should also be pursued if it promises a distinctive and compelling campaign that aligns with a brand's vision.
Purpose-driven marketing should be a strategic choice for brands when it genuinely aligns with their identity and offers a unique value proposition. Beyond this, all advertising should strive to consider broader societal impacts, such as environmental responsibility and inclusivity, irrespective of its primary focus.
Juliet McLaren, Executive Creative Director, Brave Spark
I think a lot of people struggle with ‘Purpose’ because the word gets thrown around so much that it starts to lose meaning. It’s no wonder people start to feel weary of the whole subject, and suggest that it’s reached a tipping point.
For me, it comes down to how you actually frame ‘the P word’. Indeed, maybe you use a different word instead – I heard a few people at Cannes substitute the word for ‘heart’ and I quite liked that.
Work that has heart means work that has conviction. It’s work that’s intense enough to get a feeling out there. To solve meaningful challenges.
Just because you’re not setting out to solve world hunger – yes, that would be a great brief, but we don’t get that specific brief every day – doesn’t mean you can’t have work with heart (and yes, therefore work with purpose!).
If you put your heart into encouraging young people to eat less sugar, or to give a community a voice, or even just to give someone five minutes of escapism, that can be empowering. I think juries recognise and appreciate work with heart. They’re awarding those that fit the bill – and will continue to.
Asad Shaykh, head of strategy, Grey
Before debating the need for Purpose, we need to identify what purpose it is serving.
If it is to deliver a functional promise e.g. the purpose of Dettol is to kill all germs, then of course it’s valid. However, when Dettol suddenly becomes all about killing world hunger, then things get complicated. This conflation of usefulness and worthiness is what causes both consumer and jury fatigue. Why? Because it causes confusion.
When purpose is intrinsically linked to what a brand offers, it makes sense to both. Consumers see the brand as something bigger than just a product or a service, helping with commercial success. Juries can judge the brand per their license having a purpose and the tangible impact it’s creating, helping it make it a critical success.
Neither the consumer nor the juries are stupid. Both can spot sausages stuffed in a velvet glove from a mile away. For brands, it’s not about chasing the right balance to strike. It’s about choosing the right problem to solve.
Even dirt is good sometimes.
Steve Hopkins, head of brand strategy, Atomic
Ultimately every brand needs a purpose because every successful brand fulfils a role in people’s lives. Its purpose is to fulfil that role in ways that provide the most value to customers. I would assume most industry practitioners understand this, and that ‘brand purpose’ within this sense is now fairly ubiquitous.
The crucial point here though, is the relationship between brand role and brand purpose. The fundamental principle for achieving brand clarity is understanding the real and tangible role the brand plays in life, and defining and aligning behind a purpose which directly reflects its role. The appropriate place for purpose is within this construct of clarity.
The mistake too many brands made was to assume they could create meaningful difference by basically adopting and exploiting a CSR program. The distance between the actual role these brands play in life, and the purpose they pertained to, created a credibility gap, which is what we all grew weary of, and contributed to the cultural cringe highlighted by Byron Sharp.
It feels like the industry has recently course-corrected, striking a better balance, with role and purpose becoming more interrelated. If your role is to help prevent suicide, your purpose will relate to that cause. If it’s to remove stubble from men’s faces, it should probably be shaving related.
In truth, awards judges will always be seduced by noble causes. That’s just human nature. But in order to remain objective, they need to consider how well the purpose reflects the real and tangible role the brand plays in people’s lives.