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question of the week


Have we reached peak purpose?

Purpose has long been a staple of advertising campaigns but some suggest that it might be beginning to lose its impact

By Creative Salon

Businesses are under pressure from consumers, employees and other stakeholders to go beyond the pursuit of pure shareholder value. It's probably why purpose-led campaigns have been cleaning up at awards ceremonies.

But true brand purpose has to go beyond just marketing comms to avoid cynicism that it's just a convenient corporate figleaf. So have we reached peak purpose in marketing communications?

David Adamson, deputy head of strategy, The&Partnership

I bang on a lot about LGBTQ+ inclusion within our industry, so it tends to surprise people when they learn I’m a bit of a purpose cynic. ‘Purpose’ is an unhelpful and nebulous term: a bucket we’ve filled with large, nuanced, and complicated issues that tend to gravitate around social impact and sustainability.

It annoys me when brands go fishing in the purpose bucket for the sake of being seen. Too often the campaigns hauled out are vanilla to consumers or performative for our industry; thinking that doesn’t go much broader than using comms to drive awareness. That’s not enough to make impact.

It also winds me up when considered efforts to push DEI agendas within marketing gets tangled in the purpose debate. There is growth and opportunities for brands by appealing to an increasingly diverse UK population.

Last week WPP released ‘Beyond the Rainbow’, an insight study into LGBTQ+ audiences. It revealed that young people are 50 per cent more likely to identify outside a binary sexual orientation such as Lesbian, Gay or Straight. Guess what, that ‘Gen Z’ brief you’re working on is a Queer brief. Suddenly inclusion of minority audiences is less purposeful gesture, and more growth driver.

Gen Kobayashi, chief strategy officer UK & EMEA, Weber Shandwick

Sorry to fall into a Planner stereotype off the bat, but I think it’s important to understand the real question being posed here. Is the question, have we have reached saturation point of purposed-based brand strategies or if we have reached saturation point with brands who are claiming “purpose” as a cheap gimmick to gain short-lived cultural impact?

If the question is the former, then I would leave it to enormously successful brands such as Patagonia or Dove to answer that with proof of success in purpose-led strategies. If it is the latter, I think the global recession we are entering will help answer that question for you.

As times get tougher and household budgets are further squeezed, consumers will be reassessing expenditure on products and brands. It’s when times are tough, I suspect we will see how effective brands have been in delivering on a genuine purpose, adding meaningful value to people’s lives. Because if it is just veneer masquerading as purpose, then we are likely to see consumers voting with their wallets in the coming months.

Pauline Robson, managing director, MediaCom

In 2019 the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation, from an entity that purely exists to serve its shareholders to one that works for the benefit of all stakeholders – employees, suppliers, customers, communities. So it’s really no longer up for debate that businesses have a responsibility towards people and planet, as well as generating profit.

However communicating this is not easy to do well. In the rush to jump on the purpose bandwagon, many brands have lost sight of the principles that underpin a great purpose campaign. This results in poor campaigns that don’t deliver, and even accusations of purpose washing, which gives purpose comms a bad name and erodes trust.

It can be done well, but it requires consideration. Crucially good purpose marketing requires a long-term commitment and has to start from the inside out. You need to walk the talk and do the work before even thinking about comms. Ideally the work should look to solve a genuine problem in a way that the brand can uniquely own.

At its best purpose marketing is thought-provoking, elicits an emotional response, creates genuine change and drives sales. But the problem is that so much purpose marketing doesn’t do any of that – in which case it is simply an inauthentic badging exercise and I’d be happy to see the back of that.

Kate Howe, executive director, MSQ Partners

The problem with purpose is that it’s become misunderstood. It’s become a catch-all term for anything good that a brand does, when really it should be about everything good that a brand does. A lot of brands think they’re being ‘purpose-driven brands’, when fundamentally they’re focusing on one element, such as sustainability which, while clearly important, just isn’t enough.

I think we’re moving beyond purpose to a new way of operating. A colleague at LinkedIn told me about the trend towards Unified Brand, which isn’t about integrated comms but about doing right by all of your stakeholders - employees, communities, investors, your supply chain, your customers and of course, the planet. I think this concept encapsulates everything that a brand needs to strive for today. The more committed you are to doing everything right the more likely you are to succeed.

This definition of the Unified Brand excites me as it moves the conversation on. It has the potential to unite the C-suite – every senior stakeholder needs to care about it because it affects all areas of a business – and it’s so much more than a nod to doing good. It’s the only way a brand succeeds moving forward.

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