Advertising’s identity crisis can’t be solved by brand purpose alone

At the recent Advertising Association LEAD gathering Keith Weed remarked that “advertising without trust is just noise”. This followed a report from thinktank Credos showing public trust in advertising reached a low of 25% in December, a figure that stood at 48% in 1992.

This is not news to advertisers, given that at some point the industry itself fell out of love with mass advertising and marketers decided they might have a role in making the world a better place.

This point falls roughly around the advent of online advertising, when the value exchange between consumer and advertiser tilted way out of the consumers favour. Consumers recoiled as the bombardment of irrelevant ads increased and millennials declared that they wanted the companies they buy from to practice business sustainably and ethically.

This isn’t net negative. Brands have the power to make a real impact, to raise awareness and influence public discourse. What is negative is lazy, shoehorned partnerships and alignments utilised for want of a good idea.

It’s impossible not to take Gillette as a recent example, which after fomenting and propagating what some might describe as toxic masculinity for decades, is now its antithesis.

Something however doesn’t add up for their consumers, or their bottom line.

The proprietor of slightly-more-expensive pink razors, and broadcaster of ads shaming women into removing every inch of hair on their bodies, suddenly the champion of modern masculinity?

No wonder that despite the unprecedented attention sales remain unchanged.

So what was the point? What is the purpose of all this purpose?

Better still, let’s start with the purpose of advertising – to sell. There is little current evidence to suggest purpose ‘works’ in this sense, but that’s because little is being done to accurately measure its impact. Purpose is largely a tactic deployed for marketing’s sake alone, and so only measured by marketing metrics, not business metrics i.e. sales.

Back to Gillette, if it started from this standpoint – how do we sell more razors – it is clear the business of doing so is being disrupted by everything from subscription models, to laser hair removal and even a trend for stubble.

What is more pertinent than its position on modern masculinity is to figure out how and why people still buy razors in store, and what causes them to buy a pricier brand like Gillette over own brand razors. Moreover, what other products do people buy at the same time, and can the brand diversify to futureproof itself?

If the end result of that process was clear insight into current and future consumers being driven by a desire for gender equality, then purpose is an apt tool for the job.

But even then, adjusting the way it markets to women vs men might have been a better idea. If we look at what Gillette can actually do to help gender equality, although counterintuitive, the brand could do without demonising women’s body hair and charging them a premium for the privilege of removing it. What if it told women having body hair wasn't actually so grotesque that it needed to spend thousands of pounds on permanent removal?

The point is, if you don’t make purpose a business issue as opposed to a marketing issue accusations of supporting a cause for the sake of supporting a cause will rightly land firmly at your door.

Looking at everything from pricing to product (and even your gender pay gap) and making it all chime with your brand – and crucially the desires of your customers – is the only way to do it authentically.

Back to Keith Weed’s point – if people don’t trust you mean what you’re saying, you’re just adding to the noise and better off not saying it at all.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.