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Where brand purpose goes wrong

Brand purpose is a huge trend for the industry - but many are getting it wrong. So how far does brand purpose influence consumer decisions? Will consumers put purpose above their own needs? And does advertising a brand purpose really drive sales? Simon White, chief strategy officer at FCB West reveals all...

ANA Members voted brand purpose as 2018’s Marketing Word of the Year.

At times, it is heralded as the key to success. Think Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick. Other times, such as Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner debacle, it’s lambasted. And sometimes, in the case of Gillette’s "The best men can be" it’s hotly disputed.

Why does brand purpose sometimes lead to effective – and other times disastrous – advertising?

To answer that, we need to look at how brand purpose influences decisions.

David Jones, former global CEO at Havas, said "Consumers want to buy from and do business with brands that share their values and beliefs. And they will punish those businesses they view as irresponsible."

A survey commissioned by Channel 4 supports this view. It found that 57% of young people believe brands should use their advertising to raise awareness of social or ethical issues.

But do consumers place a brand’s ‘why’ over their own needs?

Some argue it does. Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why states "People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it".

Mark Ritson, adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School puts it bluntly: "Patently, the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic. I do not want Starbucks telling me about race relations and world peace – I want it to serve me a decent coffee in pleasant locations."

This difference partly comes down to different definitions of brand purpose.

Some define brand purpose as what a brand offers beyond making money. When this aligns with consumers’ needs it is powerful. Nike’s is a great example of this, with the corporate mission "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world" and "if you have a body, you are an athlete" brand proposition.

Defined this way, purpose is the core to great brand-building and clearly drives sales. It creates consistency, a distinctive positioning and a springboard that leads to campaigns such as Nike’s with Kaepernick.

This is the approach we use when we speak about the ‘brand bedrock’ that underpins a brand. Levi’s brand purpose for example is "Authentic self expression." This aligns with what consumers want from Levi’s, it is distinctive and creates consistency. It led to the "Live in Levi’s" platform and highly successful campaigns such as "Circles" and "Vote."

Many take the definition of brand purpose further, asking what good is the brand doing for society? This happens when marketers believe people choose brands that share their values, and punish those that don’t.

If this were true, any brand that acted unethically would see their market share plummet.

Yet in 2018, following unnerving stories around their treatment of staff, Uber still managed to grow their customer base of the U.S. millennial population from 17.3% to 25.5%. Negative stories about the conditions of workers at Apple and Amazon also haven’t slowed their growth.

Yes, of course, people want brands to behave ethically, treat their workers well, and help improve society. And when a researcher asks them, that’s what they’ll say.

But when choosing brands, people behave differently. According to IPSOS, only 12% of millennials have chosen a brand because of its responsible behavior. Only 16% have boycotted one.

Why the contradiction?

Firstly, most people don’t take the time to learn about brands and their purpose. They’re too busy to research the brand’s ethical values behind their choice of beans, toilet roll and shampoo. 80% of brand buyers know little or nothing about the brands they buy.

Secondly, while people care about these social issues, it’s not why they’re buying the brand. Most of the time people choose whichever brand best meets their goals. These are both functional goals, and unconscious emotional goals linked to our deeper human drives.

When brands advertise their favorite social cause, instead of meeting consumers’ goals, the advertising becomes irrelevant, ineffective and annoying. Multiple brands have received backlash for lecturing on unrelated topics, such as Audi over equal pay or Starbucks over race relations. Many others have withdrawn campaigns shortly after launch, including McDonald’s and Pepsi.

It’s great that companies adopt social causes, but does advertising it drive sales?

For some, yes, when the brand built their purpose on a social cause from day one. It’s core to their positioning and success, such as Patagonia and Tom’s Shoes.

For most established brands, though, jumping on an unrelated social cause is confusing, inauthentic and irrelevant. They need to define purpose on how they enrich their consumer’s life, not their social responsibility. Mistakes happen when we believe shared values are more important than consumers’ goals, when the brand team place what they care about over what the consumer’s looking for.

When it comes to advertising, don’t start with your why, start with theirs 

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