Many marketers have been distracted by the lure of social purpose and have fallen away from the core tenets of the trade, claims Richard Shotton, the influential head of behavioural science at Manning Gottlieb OMD.
The Choice Factory author told The Drum that purpose is but a single tool available to marketers. He said: “If you only have one tool, you force all your problems to fit that tool. To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. That is the problem with purpose.”
As a head of evidence, Shotton does not believe there is enough proof that purpose campaigns deliver for marketers; instead, he insisted: "Marketers have fallen out of love of marketing for marketing's sake.
“The art of buying and selling things and creating good products is now widely seen as an unethical career and try to make up for it by balancing it with brand purpose.”
The December 2018 issue of The Drum magazine addresses the notion that advertising has become a dirty word, citing that many groups and agencies seem reluctant to use the word when describing their goods and services.
For Shotton, brand purpose is weighed down by the notion that you can be purposeful as long as this drives profit.
He said: “I think it is admirable for a brand to follow purpose regardless of the money.” He pointed to Patagonia closing its stores for a day in 2016 to encourage staff and shoppers to vote, which would have carried a significant cost. It had previously done so in 2014 to encourage climate march shoppers.
Paraphrasing marketing professor Mark Ritson, Shotton said: “The best way to know if purpose is suitable is whether the purpose predated the marketing. If you have you built a company around a belief then it makes absolute sense to continue talking about that – it probably means that you will be a niche brand.”
He suggested that brands that repeatedly market their social good virtue may not be doing themselves any favours. Shotton did not name brands but examples could include Coca-Cola's recycling efforts and McDonald's grassroots sports drives, which may be counterproductive as they draw consumers' attention to the companies' own contribution to single-use plastics and obesity epidemics respectively.
Shotton said: "If you are talking about your ethical behaviour, you are not talking about your price or why you are a desirable product. It is naive to think that what you say is what the consumer takes out too. If someone is preaching about how honourable they are, the listener may start to think they are listening to a charlatan.”
There is no harm in brands having a purpose but Shotton questioned whether purpose should be a core focus of a marketing strategy.
"Purpose can be valuable but should it be the focus of your marketing, do people really care about it when they are buying a burger or a soft drink or a pair of shoes? It is a long way from a primary motivator. The danger is that people think it is much more important due to a superficial look at survey data.”
The social desirability bias, for example, creates a dissonance between how people act and how people say they act. While ethics may play a part in shopping decisions, like buying an electric car or getting a house insulated, Shotton admitted that its role in the consumer journey has been “exaggerated”.
“If you ask someone if they donate to charity, 100% of people say yes. If you then compare that to actual charitable income we notice a difference. There is no denying that there is ethical behaviour but you would think we were more generous than we actually are if you believed at face value peoples' claims.”
The belief in purpose marketing has found advocates in the form of Arianna Huffington, Maurice Levy, Sir Martin Sorrell, Tom Peters and more over the last half a decade. Shotton believes it popularity stemmed from a study published by brand consultants Millward Brown and former Procter and Gamble marketing officer Jim Stengel, called the Stengel 50.
Shotton previously critiqued the study in The Drum but took another opportunity to lay into the lasting harm it may have caused.
In 2012, this “unprecedented 10-year global study” claimed a “cause and effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance”. After the financials of 50,000 brands were analysed, 50 entities boasting purpose and profit were lauded as highlights. Between 2002 and 2012, these companies exhibited 400% more profit than an investment in the S&P 500.
At the time, Stengel said: “I have always believed that great brands are built on improving the lives of the people they serve; I wanted to prove that maximum profit and high ideals aren’t incompatible but, in fact, inseparable.”
Shotton argued that the study should be invalidated on the grounds that “the data, the definitions and design are flawed".
On the most basic level, eight of the 50 companies were privately listed, taking the overall figure down to 42. More than a third of those listed were not companies but elements of companies. For example, the argument was ‘Innocent Smoothies has a purpose, and we know it is working because Coca-Cola's holding company has grown so much’. Shotton said: "The problem is that Innocent is a tiny percent of Coca-Cola's revenues so the metric he used and what he proved are two different things.”
Shotton also took exception to the ideals attributed to brands on the list. He picked out ‘Moet exists to transform a drink into a celebration’ as a particularly bad example. “These are so vague they can be applied to any brand at all. If any brand can be forced into purpose, and you've picked the best performing brands, the study becomes meaningless. The definitions are too weak to be valid.”
On the general state of brand purpose evidence, he believes that any marketer can find a case study to prove anything if they look hard enough.
He outlined that it can be easy to pick out coincidental factors between top performing companies. Shotton concluded: “If we were to look at the greatest straplines ever, ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, ‘We're Number Two So We Try Harder’ and ‘Impossible is Nothing’, we can see common factors between them. They are all from brands whose name begins with an A so if you want to have a great strapline, change your brand to begin with an A.”