The Cannes purpose debate sums up advertising’s half-hearted approach to genuine change

Upon heading out to Cannes we were surprised to hear one of the strands of the purpose theme centred around whether we as an industry “focus too much on purpose at the expense of good, creative, product-shifting marketing.”

As an agency that uses creative communications to drive behaviour change, it feels odd to see those two things posited as somehow mutually exclusive. As if one would take from the other.

In part this is down to how narratives around purpose-led advertising vs marketing-at-large have developed. When it comes to the latter we’ve become obsessed with the science of it. Reams of data are fed to behavioural scientists to help develop campaigns that will drive people to change the washing powder they buy. Cookies help advertisers follow people around the internet to pinpoint the exact moment they dropped detergent A and switched to detergent B. It’s almost forensic in nature.

Purpose, however, is by and large fluff. It’s usually skin deep, and as such has very little impact on anything – not behaviour, nor a brand’s bottom line – bar a few headlines and some social chatter.

What we’ve missed is that behaviour change is a science – whether it’s purely for the purpose of selling, or putting some good back into the world. The more we try to unlink the two the more we do the latter a disservice.

We are seeing industry upon industry rife with disruption. Subscription models threaten everything from beauty to automotive brands, luxury brands are threatened by consumers flocking to experiences over possessions – the list goes on.

Marketers that are responding to these challenges by using purpose-led advertising to build brand loyalty are on the right track – but the reality is they need to work harder.

According to Dr Wayne Visser, professor of integrated value and sustainable transformation at Antwerp Management School, writing in Raconteur (31.5.19), the question is not whether companies act, but how. He says: “It matters whether their responsible action is defensive, charitable, promotional, strategic or transformative. Most are in the first four stages, when what we need is transformation.’’

What he means is we’re missing a trick when it comes to driving genuine change. It’s also why Unilever chief exec Alan Jope took to the stage at this year’s festival to call out “woke washing”, noting that it destroys trust in our industry by polluting purpose.

So how to get it right?

There’s a lesson here from the public sector, where purpose-led campaigning was born. Consider that in living memory people could smoke on the Underground and it was socially acceptable to drink and drive. Social marketing delivered this transformation, through a mix of partnerships, and legislative and communication levers.

McVitie's is an example of a brand that is setting out on this journey. Its Sweeter Together masterbrand strategy launched last year and aimed to tap into societal issues around loneliness and demonstrate how, despite having lots of digital connections, people can feel isolated from each other. McVitie's inhabits its audience’s footprint, recreating a familiar situation and highlighting that, though giving someone a biscuit and having a chat might seem trivial, for many, the simple act might make someone’s day.

Importantly this strategic move is rooted in McVitie's owner Pladis’ commitment to promoting mental health awareness in the workplace, with training for managers, ambassadors at every site and 24/7 employee assistance.

Building on this, McVities recently launched a partnership with Mind, the mental health charity, which sets out to promote positive mental health by encouraging people to chat. And it has applied some behavioural science to the task.

The science behind influencing behaviour and encouraging positive changes is what we live and breathe every day, and it is good to see that McVitie's has employed ‘social-norming’ and made chatting over a cuppa seam easy, attractive, social and timely for the audience.

McVitie's commitment to launching more initiatives in 2019 and beyond indicates that it is in this for the long-haul. The McVitie's approach would appear to be creating the right environment to make a social impact and deliver against the brands commercial goals. Referring to Visser’s checklist, the initiative is clearly defensive, charitable, promotional, and strategic. Only time and good evaluation will tell if it is transformational.

That is the sort of measurable impact that any purpose-led partnership should seek to make. Just ‘doing purpose’ no longer cuts it. Understanding how a brand can change behaviour is not only good for brand value but can make a positive difference to people’s lives and the communities in which they live; delivering significant social value, which is the purpose after all.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red

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