Purpose marketing: handle with care

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Stir provide some insight into purpose marketing and reveal the importance of pushing out marketing messages that are intrinsic

For brands, the day of the one-way conversation is fast becoming dead in the water and with the ‘conscience economy’ having such a huge influence on purchasing decisions, brands need to work a lot harder and do a lot more to appeal to consumers.

With this in mind, brands are coming under increasing pressure to establish more human and culturally relevant ways to engage their audiences. As such we’ve seen the recent rise in brands adopting purpose-driven marketing at an accelerating pace to engage with the consumer on a deeper level.

Brands should tread carefully though, otherwise they risk looking frenetic if they jump on the purpose marketing band wagon with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind the position adopted. The commitment and context need to be there, with consumers being taken on the journey with them. In the current climate, consumers are increasingly cynical and trust levels have deteriorated, therefore any purpose taken up by a brand needs to be an authentic reflection of what that brand does and thinks, or it risks slipping into an empty virtual signaling exercise that can feel contrived and soon can come undone, doing more harm than good.

There are those out there who are certainly getting it right, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything," was a sentiment that Nike truly owned when the brand took the calculated risk to endorse Colin Kaepernick last year.

Nike went into the campaign fully aware that amplifying a courageous voice and thereby endorsing the NFL-shamed footballer would divide its usually fervently loyal audience, but believed that the point being made was intrinsic to its beliefs, so decided that any upset caused was warranted to make a bigger statement.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iceland, albeit arguably unintentional and innocent, fell into the virtue signalling category. The supermarket chain publicly pledged to remove all palm oil from its own-label products by the end of 2018, bolstering this sentiment with a (swiftly banned) Christmas ad featuring repurposed Greenpeace footage of rainforests being destroyed.

This courageous leap, which at first took consumers by surprise based on the seeming dissonance between the noble cause and their knowledge of the supermarket’s values, secured a broad and positive reception. However, despite the ad initially gaining huge support from the public and celebrities alike, the retailer left itself exposed, with a follow-up BBC inquiry in early 2019 reporting that the retailer was still selling 28 own-brand products containing palm oil, as well as more than 600 from other brands, thereby failing to come good on its bold promise.

While Iceland could be commended for leveraging the holiday season to raise an important point, its inability to back up its widely publicised pledge, could potentially do more damage than good to its brand in the longer term.

It remains to be seen how Gillette’s recent departure from its iconic strapline, ‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best men can be’, promoting a new kind of positive masculinity, will play out. Whilst this pivot in direction seemingly came out of the blue for consumers, with the context and the preceding journey not being evident, if the brand truly owns the new positioning and meaningfully backs it up across their business, it could serve to push the brand forward, thanks to the relevance and integrity that appeals to today’s modern consumer.

Whilst the allure of purpose marketing is self-evident, thanks to social media and an internet that never forgets, brands need to be considered in their approach to ensure they ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.

Furthermore, it doesn’t need to necessarily be a ‘go big or go home’ scenario, to have an impact. If the timing is not right to articulate a brand’s purpose to the general public then all is not lost and there remains the opportunity to signpost good behaviour and showcase the incremental wins that can be fully supported and backed up, thereby, laying the foundations for potentially what is to come.

Ultimately, at Stir we believe it’s those who establish a relevant cultural voice through stirring human emotions that will create an authentic connection and earn a place in a consumer’s heart and mind. In lieu of this, we work with our clients in a considered fashion to establish purpose-led credentials that will emotionally resonate, stack up and will endure.

Considerations for purpose marketing:

  • Is the commitment to the purpose truly intrinsic to the brand values, and reflected across the business? If not, is it truly a purpose?
  • Can the purpose be tangibly supported in a meaningful way?
  • Will the revelation of the purpose come as a surprise to the consumer? If so, how can we share the journey with them as to how the brand has arrived at this place?
  • From a consumer perspective, does the brand have a legitimate stake in the purpose and wider conversation, or could it feel contrived? If so, how can the rationale and significance of the purpose to brand be demonstrated alongside an authentic long-term commitment?

Polly Atherton is the managing director at Stir.

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