Does a brand’s purpose really impact sales?

Brands are increasingly trying to build purpose into their messaging but to what avail? While Gen Z, aka the socially-conscious generation, may be intent on buying into brand values, some marketers remain sceptical whether implementing purpose into their strategies actually helps with generating long-term profit. Some brands therefore are being called out for lacking brand purpose, while others are equally chastised for adding it in artificially. Whether the industry has reached a point of purpose fatigue is yet to be seen. These were the topics of discussion at the ‘Does a brand’s purpose really impact sales?’ panel held in partnership with WE Communications during Cannes Lions and moderated by The Drum’s associate editor Sonoo Singh.

The panellists questioned the meaning of brand purpose and which metrics should be used for determining its success.

All for purpose

Purpose in a brand’s strategy can help to create longevity and credibility. But rather than strive to make a difference for the sake of making a difference, marketers need to work out what they really want to focus on to create maximum societal impact. And they should note that purpose needn’t be limited to certain sectors or verticals – it can be applied to all sectors.

“FMCG categories may have given us the permission to do more emotional marketing and create more purpose-driven consumer engagement,” said WE UK’s managing editor Ruth Allchurch. “It can be a challenge to roll out purpose across other sectors - certainly when looking at B2B sectors, where there’s an assumption that we don’t need to have purpose or to put our values front and centre - but in the last few years, more clients are coming forward and asking us how they can prioritise CSR. It may not be part of many corporations’ deliverables and KPIs yet but purpose often does feature somewhere in their journey.”

Beauty brand Dove and pet supplier Pedigree are two examples of brands that are doing their bit to make a difference. Rather than stamp purpose atop their brand, they have built it into their brand’s vision and all commercial efforts – and it shows.

“Pedigree's fortune, growth and connection with the consumer has been turned around through purpose alone,” said lead chief marketing officer at Mars, Incorporated, Jane Wakely. “The communications idea - feed the good – leans onto something bigger than the product; that being good to dogs translates to the kindness of humans, while relaying a very authentic pet-driven purpose.”

The brand has successfully turned the pet category into an attractive and appealing industry, sought out by numerous creatives and even winning many creative awards. Practicing purpose actually works at attracting the best and most diverse talent, plus all those working on the account are likely to go the extra mile as they really believe in the job. “Millennials and Gen Z want to make a difference,” said Dinara Bekmansurova, global senior brand director at Dove, Unilever. “Purpose is not a chore or a burden for those people.”

Similarly, Dove has built a community around its products – even launching a self-esteem project aimed at building confidence in girls. Bekmansurova admits that actioning their purpose has only contributed to the brand’s financial success. “Another misconception is that working on the purpose side of a brand doesn’t sell, which is quite untrue,” she said.

“We’ve been doing this for eight years and the investments we put on purpose mirrors the growth of Dove. There wasn’t a single year where Dove declined in profits. Once people heard about our self-esteem project, which creates short term purchase intent, we grew by 21%, which is our best performing advertising function. Dove’s products only give us 8% increase so for us, it works much better to promote purpose when it’s really embedded into the product.”

Listen to the people

Brands need to believe that they have the power to effect real change, especially as consumers begin to realise their influence. “Consumers are actually asking for brands to take more of a stand than ever before,” said Allchurch. “Many people feel let down by their governments for various reasons. If brands don’t take a stand, consumers may even ditch them and walk away. There’s a very serious and real threat for brands that sit back and are passive.”

Bekmansurova agrees: “People want CEOs to embrace sustainable change because they realise that companies can act and can make changes faster than the government can. Look at Canada, where they’ve banned the single use of plastic by 2021. People vote with their wallets; they make these choices every day.”

She adds that by setting clear objectives, brands can track their failures and figure out the effectiveness of adding purpose. “You can only fall short when you don’t know what youre trying to achieve,” said Bekmansurova. “The moment you have a scorecard, it’s easy to understand whether you’ve delivered or not.”

While setting aggressive targets and making them transparent is what some consumers are expecting from companies today, marketers shouldn’t be disheartened if they don’t meet all their objectives at once, warns Wakely. “If you declare an intent, you have to show that you are making progress to resolve that intent. Sometimes you may make a bold commitment with the best will in the world, but you might not be creating the impact that you want.

“It’s only through complete transparency and with credible third-party auditing that we can really know whether we’re making progress. That’s vital for any partnership.”

Measuring metrics

However, despite the seeming engagement and financial success of purpose building, knowing how to measure effectiveness is still somewhat of a challenge. Company KPIs need to be set for all project so that brands can work out whether they’re meeting their deliverables.

“There are lots of frameworks that can be applied and each of them measure different things,” said Bekmansurova. “For example, at Unilever, we’ve pledged that all our uses of plastic need to be 100% compostable by 2025 across all of our brands, so this is what we measure. “

Obviously taking these sorts of measures can be time consuming and require a shift in attitude but as Bekmansurova adds, it’s not impossible. “Sometimes KPI-setting can be as simple as ‘let’s ban all animal testing on our products;’ you just make that decision,” she said. “It’s simple how to measure it - whenever a supplier comes with an ingredient or you have a choice on launching a product, you know you’re not allowed to do that as a brand so you don’t do it. They can be simple KPIs and simple commitments but it takes lots of effort to achieve them.”

Ultimately, it’s up to brands whether they make the relevant change to add real purpose to their messaging. Most of all, they need to ensure that this purpose aligns with their organisation’s point of view and behaviour, especially if they’re working with a strategic partner to elevate their message. The industry does need to step up; while standardised practices for measuring purpose are lacking, consumers are increasingly demanding this level of attention from brands. But with the onset of initiatives like the Global Alliance for Responsible Media by the WFA, which launched in Cannes Lions this, conversations about change are starting.

“As an industry, we need to step up,” said Wakely. “We’ve all been working on our own missions for so long but there’s been various fragmented efforts to establish purpose in the industry. The launch of this initiative is a real game-changer. Collaboration is going to be critical to solve some of the problems in our society.”

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