Has brand purpose jumped the shark?

Intention without action is cowardly. Brands that want to advocate for purpose, cause, or social impact need to back it up, writes the CEO of School.

Before the best picture free-for-all at the 2017 Oscars, brands paid a hefty price ($2.1 million for a 30-second spot) to extoll the virtues of inclusivity. Many, including Hyatt, Cadillac, and The New York Times, did it well.  

Ads on the Oscars, like many that aired during Super Bowl LI, played off the predominance of feel-good brand activism. "Saturday Night Live" even weighed in on Feb. 11, when the show’s political satire was briefly focused on advertising that uses purpose as its main conceit to sell products. In case you missed it, the skit featured brand managers of Cheetos being pitched by rival agencies, one just wanting to show kids having fun and snacking and the other pitching increasingly absurd purpose-centered advertising tropes like immigration, racial inclusiveness, and transgender rights while touting the cheesiness (no pun intended) of the Cheetos brand.

As a cultural mirror, SNL rarely misses the mark. And it certainly didn’t fail to do so here, humorously illustrating how SNL’s writers clearly think all this brand activism is ham-handedly overplayed and increasingly asinine.

The SNL skit—like ads during the Oscars—inevitably generated a slew of commentary from the advertising and PR community. Some will view the spots as truly authentic and values-based, while others will brand them opportunistic, unsubstantial come-ons.

Brands and marketers wanting to wade into the murky and politically charged waters of brand activism need to go through the de rigueur of looking at the consequences of their messages before they hit the airways.

As the founder of a purpose-led creative shop, I’ve noticed that great brand purpose comes out of deep introspection.

There are four parts to this process: intention, action, persuasion, and validation. These are the steps a brand should take after table-stake questions are answered.

Intention: Where does the intent come from? Is it genuine or knee-jerk? Has it been a mainstay of the brand’s ethos or is this an opportunistic share grab? We often ask our partners to articulate their enemy. If the answer is "the competition," then we know where the intention is coming from. When they answer more ambiguously and esoterically—things like apathy, limitation, status quo, and accessibility—our ears perk up. Knowing your enemy lets you know what you’re fighting for. Dove’s enemy is standardized notions of beauty, so it fights for all women to remember that everyone is beautiful. Red Bull’s enemy is human limitation, so it strives to give wings to humans that want to defy limitations. Knowing your enemy also uncovers your allies—other brands, advocates, causes, and movements—that can be brought into the fray. 

Action: Intention without action is cowardly. Brands that want to advocate for purpose, cause, or social impact need to back it up with action. In the context of advertising, much of this action comes in the form of evocative, compelling, and emotionally stirring (positive or negative) storytelling. While I think work from Airbnb, Budweiser, and Expedia is exceptional and the epitome of our craft, it is not enough. Brand purpose must transpose from storytelling to story-doing. Brands need to actively insert themselves in cultural tensions that are contextually relevant to their intention, and create compelling real-world experiences for people to take part and share. They need to invest their purpose in what we call human-centric media – experiential, digital, social, and public relations – to articulate the purpose in culture through action rather than image.

Persuasion: Here’s where the SNL skit truly took aim—the inability of brands to recognize the inauthenticity of their ads and the levels of incredulity from their audiences. It’s hard to convince a cynical, politically hardened, and ad-saturated populace that a brand gives a shit about making the world a better place. There’s an ingrained cultural skepticism around brands—our industry has been making fabricated claims and counter-claims for decades—that only gets worse with the deluge of advertising that seeks to intrude into everyday lives. It should be no surprise that when done well, a brand’s purpose ads will draw out naysayers. When done badly, those naysayers will draw out their knives.

Persuading audiences that a brand shares consumer intentions is paramount. Starbucks succeeded with "A Year of Good." The spot is filled with statements of brand action and customer thanks, reminding viewers that Starbucks helped 8,000 veterans, send 6,535 baristas to college, provided jobs to 10,000 young people, and helped get 22 million trees planted. The work combines real-world authenticity, feel-good vibes, and factual back-up to the brand’s purpose and community efforts.

Validation: Making purpose worthwhile is the ultimate test of a brand’s intention. Not only must the purpose be persuasive, it needs to positively impact the world and fundamentally change either individual lives or cultural mores. Airbnb’s beautiful Super Bowl ad called "We Accept" was a continuation of the brand’s purpose of bridging cultural and national divisiveness. To prove the "We Accept" stand, the company has committed to providing free short-term housing for 100,000 people in need—refugees, victims of natural disasters, and aid workers who travel to those places. In this approach, the opportunity for validation is palpable.

Human-centricity will be the ultimate North Star for a brand’s purpose. I often explain that "purpose is the new digital." It will change the commercial dynamics in the same way that digital transformed (and is transforming) the way people buy and sell stuff. Consumers will support brands that want to dent the world for the better and profit must come with a purpose.

So perhaps this isn't a jump-the-shark moment for brand purpose, but instead, only the beginning.

—Max Lenderman is the CEO of Project agency School, the Boulder, Colo.-based agency that helps brands act purposefully in culture.

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