Brand purpose: Is it the role of brands to fix our fractured times?

There is a growing chorus of concern at the growing isolation and social anxiety in a world that looks increasingly fractured politically, socially and economically. And we are inundated with news, notifications and posts, and in turn spend little time feeling the satisfaction of community in an always-on world. To discuss some of these issues and explore the role of brands in addressing the ‘belonging’ deficit, a panel discussion was held at The Drum Arms in London during Advertising Week Europe.

Hosted by The Drum associate editor, Sonoo Singh, the panel included marketers from BT, TUI UK and IBM iX.

Technologically isolated or connected?

In the age of technology, there are growing concerns of how tech is socially isolating the population. What roles then for brands to help fix that? “Almost overwhelming” is how Toby Horry, brand and content director, TUI UK describes how as a species technology has allowed us all to connect.

But adds: “Although, I'm not sure if it's the role of brands to fix that. I don't know if they can but it's clearly important that brands demonstrate the role and understanding they have of the digital world. Even the word isolation requires a bit of qualification because it's not that everyone is sat on their own, not talking to anyone. We're more connected than ever.”

Zaid Al-Qassab, chief marketing officer, managing director, BT/EE/Plusnet says that of course we’re now connected in more ways now than we could have dreamed of 10 years ago. “If you're going to be, as we are, a communications technology brand, you've got to think about how people are not just connected but connected well.

“Truly connected in the way you mean when you talk about your connections with your friends and loved ones. Not just connected by pipes and wires to hundreds or thousands of different objects and people around you.”

IBM iX digital strategy and iX Lead, UKI vice president, Debbie Vavangas, however believes that it is the responsibility of a brand to enable that.

“Before, it was enough for us to engage with the product. Now we want wonderful experiences while we engage with those products. As consumers, we want to be part of a set of eco systems that come together to enhance our lives in a meaningful way that matters to us.

“If it's not driven by the brands within those eco systems, then you're leaving it to the tech companies and that's a dangerous place.”

Purpose, purpose, purpose

It’s one of 2019’s worn-out buzzwords, but purpose really has taken off as brands execute their reason for being. The panel agreed that it has to be right for the brand. For some it’s the right thing to do, for others, having a high sense of purpose could prove to be the wrong move.

Horry insists that brands need to understand the positive role they can play in people's lives. “They need to make sure they follow through on that, but it doesn't necessarily mean they have to save the world or move up to that higher order of purpose all the time. For some it works, for some it doesn't.”

Al-Qassab adds that when brands adopt a purpose, it needs to be close to what they and the people in their business do. He says: “The people in those businesses are humans just like the rest of us and they want to believe that their company, brand and product is doing something useful.”

And you don’t always have to shout out to the world that you’re doing something great. Al-Qassab gives the example of how BT helps educate teachers in primary schools on how to talk to children on these challenges of communication.

“It comes with the territory of being a communications company that you need to allow people, especially young people as they grow up, to understand how to use communications well,” says Al-Qassab. “It's part of our purpose because it fits what we are, what we sell and what our benefit is. And as a business we are not always telling you about such initiatives.”

Taking a political stance

Purpose can mean anything from social matters all the way to backing political issues. But should brands take a side when it comes to politics?

There are other causes that brands heavily back, according to Vavangas, in part because they want to use their position of influence to help change the world for good. “But also, because it's damn smart marketing,” she says. “It’s about being true to the core sense of the brand.

“Should brands come out and make a political statement, getting everybody behind the labour party or Brexit? That's a dangerous position to be in. What they've got to try and do is create a sense of belonging that can reach all consumers.”

Beyond belonging

There’s more to belonging that purpose. For Al-Qassab, for instance, BT Sport is a way of belonging. “Sports is by nature quite tribal, and people want to watch it together at home or in the pub,” he insists. “You're on one side or another. Any company can look at the things that it has at its disposal, and that naturally leads to engagement so that there is little need to engage by creating false communities or loyalty programmes.”

It’s about finding the right mix between emotional and rational reasons to believe, according to Horry. It can be difficult to develop rational reasons in today’s tech-led world; however, he agrees with Al Qassab that sports is a great example. “It will have cost BT a lot of money to get to that rationale reason to believe but it's clearly worth it.”

Vavangas adds that until you know who your audience is, how can brands possibly have any idea what kind of purpose they should have or what would trigger that sense of belonging.

Balancing purpose and products

Whether you hated or loved it, Gillette’s recent campaign sparked a debate about the next generation of masculinity, something that is at the core of their brand.

Al Qassab, a former UK managing director of Gillette believes that the campaign evaluated what Gillette is as a brand.

He says: “They tried to find a modern purposeful take on masculinity, and I applaud them for that. For trying. The intent was good. Whether the execution worked or whether it was unnecessarily alienating to some people, is a moot point. But should brands be looking for things like that? And trying to do the right thing that chimes with their target audience? Yes, they absolutely should.”

He reminded the audience how 20 years ago, the brand has pushed ‘The best a man can get’, which was echoing the times of what a good man should be. Which is what it’s trying to do the same today, Al Qassab adds. “They've always been at it with the Gillette brand, but it's something that consumer good have really embraced as they've realised there's less and less product differentiation.”

Purpose seems to be much more prevalent in FMCG, adds Horray. “It's hard to drive genuine product differentiation.

Gillette is representative of what has happened in a lot of FMCG, it's really hard to drive differentiation that's meaningful and what the people actually want. Which is why you're seeing a lot of the purpose driven brands in FMCG and not necessarily in brands that have more service component like holidays or telecommunications.”

Vavangas concludes: “We are seeing less of reflecting the times that we're in now and more trying to drive the change. Whether it's Gillette or Bodyform, these are very big campaigns that speak to the core of society and gender.”

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