Paul Simpson Writer, Performance Marketing World

Social champions or woke washers? Putting a price on brand purpose

In the age of the socially conscious consumer, do brand purpose campaigns really perform better than the average ad? 


When journalist Teun (Tony) van der Keuken ate two chocolate bars and turned himself into the Dutch police, insisting that he was complicit in slavery, the authorities refused to prosecute him. This happened 17 years ago when much of the chocolate on sale on supermarket shelves was made from cocoa harvested by child slaves. (Spoiler alert: it still is.) After filing a suit on behalf of four boys who had worked on farms in the Ivory Coast, Van der Keuken decided to lead by example and, in 2OO5, launched the company Tony’s Chocolonely with 5, OOO Fairtrade-certified chocolate bars. 

No one could deny Van der Keuken’s purpose – his brand would not exist without it – and it has worked for his business, but the overall effectiveness of purpose-driven marketing campaigns is still fiercely – or hysterically? – debated. Last October, a controversial report by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) suggested that the best purpose-driven campaigns drove 15 percent more market share growth than standard ad campaigns. 

If anything, the IPA’s verdict intensified the debate. Critics blasted the report for not comparing apples with apples – it benchmarked 47 well purpose-driven campaigns against 333 non-purpose campaigns, some well executed and some not. Even more damningly, when all ad campaigns were measured across a range of six metrics (sales, market share, new customer acquisition, customer loyalty, pricing power and profit), standard campaigns generated 45 percent more “large business effects” (to use the IPA’s awkward term) than purpose-driven ones.  


The three levels of brand purpose

The very term ‘brand purpose’ is so ambiguous that it can, as Jim Hawker, co-founder and head of sales and marketing at brand enhancement agency ThreePipeReply , says, cover a slew of contrasting marketing strategies.

“You can emulate Google with their general ‘do no harm’ approach, you can go further with something like B corporation status (where your social and environmental performance is independently verified) or, like Tony’s Chocolonely, your brand can develop a compelling, almost unique, purpose by tackling an issue that is prevalent in your market,” says Hawker. “In the latter case, the product has turned the purpose into a platform to confront the issue of slavery in the supply chain. In reality, all of these approaches are important, but a strategy like Tony’s gives brands an opportunity to engage with customers and define a point of difference.”

That is critical because, he warns, in a market where every brand defines itself as vaguely progressive, your campaign may get lost in the clutter. No one wants to distinguish their brand by positioning it against diversity and inclusion and in favour of climate change. Even Tim Martin, the outspoken magnate running pub chain Wetherspoons, who spent £95, OOO on pro-Brexit beer mats, has not gone that far.

Finding your purpose

If you want your purpose-driven campaign to perform better than your competitors, you have to start by asking such blunt questions as whether you genuinely have a purpose and whether you can convince your customers that you do. “Brand purpose isn’t something you can slap on like a sticker,” says David Kester, founder and managing director of strategic design consultancy DK&A. ”Even though we, as consumers, don’t always live up to our ideals in our daily lives, we have become alert to every little inference in the way companies present themselves.”

Indeed, the IPA found that poorly executed purpose-driven campaigns were less effective than poorly executed standard campaigns. Hawker says: “We have had companies come to us and say they need a brand purpose, not can we clarify what their purpose is, but can we find one? If you’re asking an external agency to define your brand purpose, you’re in trouble.”

A classic example of a brand desperately seeking purpose is the energy giant Chevron which revealed last year that, as part of its net zero emissions strategy, it would power its oil and gas drills with solar energy and wind turbines. Take that global warming!

Cohesion to avoid contradiction

Hawker says: “If you say that your brand has a purpose – and you’re doing something that contradicts that purpose – you will be found out. Look at Elon Musk – on the one hand, he’s saving the planet by making electric vehicles with Tesla but on the other he obviously doesn’t like paying taxes. In general, as Tony’s shows, it’s easier for innovative start-ups to make purpose integral to their business. It is much harder for a traditional multinational to apply that retrospectively, in every country, every market and every operation.”

Difficult, but doable. Many established companies were originally founded with a purpose which, Kester notes, may have been diluted over time as the business grew and changed but which can be rediscovered. SAP, the German-based software giant, is a case in point. Hasso Plattner, one of the company’s co-founders in 1972, cared deeply about the environment. At the turn of this century, David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet, the devastating exposé of plastic pollution in our oceans, reignited a similar passion in British manager Stephen Jamieson, who, becoming SAP’s head of circular economy, has led an ambitious campaign to design plastics out of the company’s supply chain.

“SAP’s campaign has been driven by shared discovery and close collaboration across the company,” says Kester. This is, he thinks, something other businesses which aim to be purpose-driven should learn from. “You need different functions to come together, define a purpose and understand the many ways in which that purpose can be put into practice across the business.” In his view, purpose is not something a marketing department can invent on its own, it has to emerge from constructive, sometimes fierce, debate between various functions, including marketing but also strategy, sales, manufacturing and finance.

That process could have averted the well-intentioned disaster of Pepsi’s Live For Now campaign in 2O17. A robust internal debate would surely have questioned the wisdom of replicating a Black Lives Matter protest for a video in which Pepsi-wielding supermodel Kendall Jenner foils police brutality. The FMCG giant had to apologise to everyone, including Jenner, and wasted $2-5m on a campaign it had to scrap.

Lack of coordination across the business can even kill good campaigns. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with NatWest’s rebrand under the slogan “We are what we do” in the autumn of 2O16. Unfortunately, over the next year, what the bank actually did was close so many branches that 41 MPs condemned the strategy in the House of Commons.

You can’t hide a guilty conscience

Cynics maintain that brand purpose is merely marketing’s attempt to assuage a guilty conscience. It’s as if executives, worried that selling things and creating good products is unethical, want to balance that by attaching their brand to a noble cause. It could be equally true that if company X pronounces it has a higher purpose than competitor Y will feel obliged to find one. Progress can be frustratingly slow, but it can be made. Child labour remains all too prevalent in the chocolate industry, despite Tony’s campaign, but the major brands have taken some action and made pledges against which they will, ultimately, be judged.

Good intentions are, Hawker says, no substitute for creativity. Yet having a convincing purpose can be a powerful point of distinction in the contest for consumers’ ‘mental availability’; the (limited) time they are prepared to spend contemplating brands in their everyday lives. 

To be fair to Peter Field, author of the IPA report, he did not recommend purpose as a universal remedy for ailing brands. He merely argued that “finding a sizeable number of cases that demonstrate strong effectiveness should make us, at the very least, question whether the blanket criticism of purpose is justified.”

The final argument in favour of brand purpose is only partially about metrics: if you passionately believe in what you do, your marketing is, other things being equal, likely to be more effective. As Kester says: “Who wants to be the person lying on their death bed, thinking to themselves: ‘I could have done something to save the planet but I chose not to’.”


Full disclosure: The author has written articles for David Kester’s Design Thinking Academy.

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