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Has the marketing industry really gone too far with social purpose?

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By Dani Gibson | Senior Writer

July 11, 2022 | 9 min read

Is Marc Pritchard right – has the industry gone too far with social purpose marketing?

Last month, P&G brand boss Pritchard admitted that the industry has gone too far with purpose marketing that focuses on "good", at the expense of creating work that drives growth – a bold statement from the brand that inspired many a copycat of its ads focused on social and environmental causes.

While brands might say it’s their responsibility to have a ‘do-good’ message at the heart of their ad campaigns, cynics might argue this is the kind of work that will help marketers and their agencies win awards. At the Cannes Lions festival, for example, a number of the Grand Prix gongs went to social purpose campaigns, regardless of their efficacy.

We asked jurors from The Drum Awards, past and present (which, of course, includes The Drum Awards for Social Purpose), for their thoughts on whether the industry has focused too much on good over growth. Here’s what they had to say.

Thomas Kolster, founder and creative director, Goodvertising Agency

Purpose is no longer the differentiator, the love magnet or the business driver it was when Dove’s ’Real Beauty’ was an outlier. Today, you can barely watch a commercial break or go to the supermarket without every brand pitching its saint-like gospel, whether it’s ’for a better world,’ ’ridding our oceans of plastic’ or ’we believe in healthier communities.’ We’re heading toward a post-purpose market, where it’s about moving away from the narcissistic and naval-gazing value crusade to playing a real meaningful difference in people’s lives.

When you, as a brand, are on a mission to transform people’s lives at every step, your resources, thinking and activity bring you closer to enabling people and ultimately changing behaviors and driving sales. Take the mindful running company District Vision: its transformative promise is to get more runners to become mindful, and part of the customer journey is to join classes and get inspired in the store, which eventually leads to buying District’s products and leads to profit. District Vision has a strong growth case to suggest so. It’s a win-win for the company and people.

The brands that do well in this space understand it’s about impact and real tangible change. Ask yourself this one question: what brands have, in fact, inspired or created change in your life? Those brands are transformational, they’re meaningful. It’s no longer an awareness crusade, but brands should be a coach helping customers live better lives.

The problem is that our industry is so focused on short-termism and ideas – which, we forget, is the easy part. Making the ideas come to fruition is the tough part, but that’s where the impact is happening. Together with our clients, we need to think more like entrepreneurs rather than masturbate to great ideas.

People’s expectations are getting higher every day. Reports, certificates and glossy marketing campaigns won’t cut it anymore. This is not a race for transparency. It is not a race to be better. It is a race to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. It’s worth helping people help themselves. Your brand is no greater than what you can make people achieve.

Daianna Karaian, co-founder, Today Do This

It depends on how you define ’purpose marketing.’ And in the absence of any industry-wide definition, I will offer this: ’purpose’ in business is a reason to exist within a wider social context, while ’marketing’ is about creating value for customers. So it could be defined as creating value for customers within a wider social context.

The truth is that, for nearly a century, brand growth was often generated by cutting jobs, cutting quality and cutting corners. And in the 21st century, brands that want to grow need to deliver products and services that create value for customers who are increasingly mindful, savvy and informed about the impact business has on society, from exacerbating climate change and pollution to squeezing workers and suppliers. That’s what makes brand purpose a fundamental business issue nowadays.

A big part of the problem is that ’purpose marketing’ gets confused with what I’ll call ’cause advertising.’ When you crowbar a social or environmental issue into your brand columns – which is lazy, short-sighted and a waste of money – it is bound to lead to brand mistrust. The industry has gone way too far with cause advertising, but it hasn’t gone nearly far enough with purpose marketing.

Brands engaging in purpose marketing, as opposed to cause advertising, should be tracking the effect on sales and measuring the impact on relevant social and environmental issues relevant to that brand.

They need to stop obsessing about advertising and start obsessing about products, processes and people. Brands should also define a purpose that is credible and compelling. That starts by analyzing the brand’s unique strengths and competencies; working out the social and environmental issues that are relevant; and considering how the brand can improve its impact on people and the planet in a way that leverages its core competencies and adds value to consumers.

Eduardo Sarmiento, executive creative director, Brunet-Garcia Advertising

There is a fundamental contradiction and misconception that I don’t agree with – that to do purpose marketing, your sales and the product are going to suffer or you’re going to need to dedicate way more money to it, because if we stand for something we’re neglecting the product or the audience. It’s quite the opposite.

What’s at stake is how we can be better. Brands have power and influence. They have the networks, the media space, the connections and the creativity. Why do we need to think that this is going to affect the bottom line or sales? If you become obsessed with that then there is a problem with your company.

It’s the way we live life. We have values such as honesty, decency, loving each other and being respectful, but should it be viewed that you’re not a good creative director because you’re too honest or empathetic, or because you want your team to grow? Of course not.

Dole Sunshine created leather out of pineapple leaves. Material and natural resources were being wasted, but now it is repurposing that and using it in a way that is bringing in revenue to the company. It’s helping with the production of leather in a way that is not affecting animals.

Brands should innovate based on what they do and what makes sense for them. It’s not necessarily asking a burger brand about solving issues that are not related to it, even though it could do it.

We are human beings and companies, and brands don’t exist without us. We shouldn’t look at it as if purpose goes against sales for companies. If the purpose is right and authentic to the brand, and it can back up its choices on what it does internally and externally, it’s a huge business multiplier.

Megan Price, co-founder, Be The Fox

Economic tightening may see price become more of a differentiator for customers, but if you have two cakes for the same price, why not get some icing? Especially at a time when everything feels out of control, small moments of empowerment go far. It is just about making sure that icing isn’t sickening. We all know the importance of authenticity and customers are rightly increasingly cynical, so ingenuine purpose marketing will undermine the brand.

People want to feel like they can be part of positive change, and providing opportunities for them to get involved beyond just buying feels both genuine and empowering. Take Patagonia’s ’Crude Awakening’ campaign to protect coastlines from oil spills, which activated surfers, kayakers and paddle boarders to travel out to an oil platform five miles off the California coast. The action was fundamental in the passing of three new bills. The ask wasn’t small, but the relationship between customers and the brand is much more long-standing.

For purpose marketing to work, the purpose must come from a value that permeates through the company rather than being created for a marketing purpose. It’s like a mate shouting loud about their fundraising for a charity that organizes skydives to raise money. If you knew that your mate had been helped personally by that charity, who cares that they had an amazing experience raising money? Of course you are going to help them raise money for a charity that looked after their dying brother.

Recently, we worked with the hormone testing company Hertility on a campaign that encouraged women to own their hormones. The tagline ’Ooh, someone’s hormonal...’ was based on a truth that spoke to all their customers – there’s no woman who feels excluded by that line. Further, the company is owned and run by women who struggled to understand their fertility and so decided to do something about it. The purpose of the brand is absolutely integrated into the product.

Find out which of The Drum Awards are now open for entry.

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