Is there purpose to campaigns for purpose?

Whether purpose-led campaigns are good business continues to divide people.

There’s plenty of debate about campaigns with purpose, much of it very intelligent and informed. Should marketers invest in campaigns that go beyond communicating the benefits of the product or service advertised and extend into a wider purpose for society with which the brand wants to associate?

Does purpose pay is often the question. And it can divide a room. Cynics will challenge the purpose of the purpose, often alleging that brands are only doing it to make money or to jump on a bandwagon. Advocates of purpose-led campaigns will amplify the effects and exaggerate the case studies that get it right.

The arguments will rarely focus on the skill of the execution. As a consequence, the debate may end up being about the difference between a great execution that people love versus one that most people ignore, rather than the strategy of purpose itself. 

In other words: nice strategy, shame about the execution.

Here are two questions to start with.

The first must be about authenticity. Does the brand have any right to play a role in the territory in question? And what actually are they doing to help? I discussed this in my first book, Tell the Truth: Honesty is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool. As the title suggests, our theme was authenticity and we described a case study in which cleaning brand Clorox created a range of products that were better for the environment in partnership with the Sierra Club, an organisation dedicated to fighting for the protection of the planet.

From the brand’s perspective, the upside was serious third-party endorsement. The Sierra Club acted on the basis of pragmatism. For environmental campaigners, the collaboration meant there was a mass-market option that was better for the planet. A brand doesn’t need to reformulate to be authentic in terms of wider purpose, but it needs to be able to prove that it walks the walk as well as talk the talk. Today's consumers are smart. They can and do investigate the ethics of a brand and manufacturer on their phones and then shout about what they discover.

The second question is: does purpose pay?

Purpose does pay. The most rigorous UK awards scheme in terms of effectiveness is of course the IPA Effectiveness Awards. Several papers published in this year’s book demonstrated two ways in which purpose pays. 

Purpose motivates employees

Having a higher purpose to communications helps employees feel positive about the day job and creates opportunities for the business to get more from them.

In an environment where many people are dissatisfied with their careers, campaigns with purpose are good for business.

This can also help with grassroots marketing, since every happy employee is likely to tell their friends and family. For big businesses that count their employees in the thousands, this has a multiplier effect that could reach millions, because employees who are proud of their company are likely to tell their friends and family. And if 30,000 employees tell 10 people each, and if those 10 tell another 10 friends – well, you can do the maths.

Purpose boosts brand saliency

It’s one way of standing out from a crowd of similar work and therefore driving return on marketing investment. Where a product is good, but the category is awash with similar images and messages, purpose can differentiate the brand.  

Why wouldn’t you want a campaign with purpose? A well-executed campaign makes your employees feel better about working for you, it gets you talked about in the right way and it delivers. The strategy should be simple. The campaign can be transformational. Above all, the execution needs to be authentic or it will fail. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
@SueU

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