Do we need to find the ‘middle ground’ of brand purpose?

A headshot of UM planning partner Lawrence Dodds
Dodds: A lofty purpose is meaningless if it doesn’t lie in the intersection between what brand and consumers care about

After questions about Unilever's focus on purpose and comments by Droga5’s David Kolbusz about purpose campaigns, UM’s planning partner argues in favour of 'meaningful' brand purpose.

Campaign recently featured a push-back to the notion that adland has a part to play in the big socio-economic issues of our day – in short, questioning whether brand purpose is part of our job. For David Kolbusz, advertising should focus more on entertaining consumers and selling products and creatives should leave the worthy, purpose-led campaigns alone.

For me, this is too polarised a view. Brand purpose definitely has a part to play in what adland does, it's just that we need to find the middle ground between the call to action and our power to persuade and drive change.

A lofty purpose is meaningless if it doesn’t lie in the intersection between what your brand and consumers care about. In fact, some of these are now viewed more as hygiene factors, and purpose-led advertising that puts them front and centre is meaningless. Surely these days we all expect our coffee to be sustainably sourced from workers who are paid more than a pittance?

And even if we don’t, are you sure that sustainability is the purpose closest to your customers’ hearts?

As an industry, it’s true that we’re here to entertain and we’re here to sell, but above all we are here to sell meaningful experiences that tie into the cultures and communities of consumers. If brands elevate the experience, it permeates everything – and solving the consumer’s problems becomes that sought-after purpose.

This might be a lofty ideal, but it might also be pretty simple. Gaviscon’s pH-neutral food truck shows how the brand’s purpose can be to affect meaningful change even in the smallest of ways, in this case by alleviating acid reflux and heartburn.

It becomes a question of value exchange, of understanding customers and identifying the moments that matter to them. They don’t care about your brand – they care about what it can do to make their lives easier and better. Marketers need to switch from a "build it and they will come" approach to focus on demand-led experience design.

Only through fundamental understanding of the consumer journey can you provide meaningful cultural, commercial and community-based experiences, and create a purpose that links to the brand’s objectives as well as the consumer need.

You can entertain with an ad, but the viewer might not get your message. You can sell your product, but you won’t get cut-through if the consumer doesn’t care.

But if you get it right, your purpose to solve the consumer’s problems is clear for all to see. Mexican ice-cream brand Elena’s created layered flavours to help people going through a break-up and suffering the various stages of grief, combined with QR codes that offered helpful services at different stages of the process, like donating your ex’s clothes, or a Tinder membership.

If a brand is delivering these sorts of meaningful experiences, it’s driving its purpose and future-proofing itself. But none of that is possible if it doesn’t know where that intersection lies between what it and its customers want.

Plus, of course, brand purpose has to go beyond advertising and instead encompass every touchpoint with the consumer. The customer experience (and the purpose behind it) isn’t just about communications, but about every part of the marketing mix.

So please don’t assume that the only way your brand can have a purpose is with some admirable, noble ideal that, let’s be honest, might just be seen as part of your expected level of CSR anyway. And similarly, I’m not convinced that falling back on entertainment and selling are the future of the industry either.

Instead, let’s try to elevate the customer experience and create meaningful campaigns and activations that solve real problems. They don’t have to be world-changing, they just have to matter to your brand and to the people you’re trying to reach.

Lawrence Dodds is planning partner at UM

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