Advertising's search for purpose and how it can actually drive change

Advertising's search for purpose and how it can actually drive change

Our industry is obsessed with the word “purpose.” There are entire conferences, events and award ceremonies dedicated to it. It's truly the buzziest of buzzwords. The problem? Many brands are not as purpose-driven as they think.

There’s nothing wrong with purpose in the abstract. Some of the greatest cultural shifts have happened due to creative work produced by talented people in our industry. The work we do can shift norms and make society better. But somewhere along the way, I feel like we have become an industry more focused on winning awards and putting together the right events, rather than creating campaigns that can truly change the world.

A recent study by Reach PLC and Ipsos Connect found that nearly 70% of consumers don’t trust advertising, and 42% don’t trust brands themselves. Why is that? Customers are unhappy with what researchers call “arrogance” with brand purpose. Over half of adults say they won’t trust a brand until they see its commitments to a cause play out in the real world; many use the terms “establishment” and “elite” to describe the superficial efforts many brands make around purpose.

Consumers have a right to call bullshit. Our industry is paying a ton of lip service to feel-good issues with often very little follow-through. Don’t get me wrong, some brands do get it right, but all too often, we see work that has all of the glamorous marketing copy and glossy visuals around making a difference—but in actuality is solely created to win awards, get press, and book celebrities.

If our industry is going to change for the better, we need to look at what it means to actually have 'purpose' and how companies, brands, and agencies can authentically get there. Change is not easy; however, commitment along with the right team and partners can make all the difference.

So, what can you do?

First, brands need to identify causes that are part of the DNA of their company and are true to what that company is about. This doesn’t mean just finding an issue that just sounds good or is trendy right now; it means deciding to drive change in an arena that authentically aligns with what an organization actually does.

There are a few bright lights out there in a sea of shallow purpose marketing. Nike killed it this year with its sponsorship of the U.S. women’s soccer team and its rousing gender equality ad seen around the world. P&G’s “The Talk” campaign—which grew out of its 13-year-old My Black Is Beautiful initiative—comes to mind as one that’s changing our world through conversation. And Bumble’s Super Bowl ad featuring Serena Williams was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the company’s commitment to women empowerment. What all three brands did makes so much sense considering what they do for their consumers.

From there, once a brand decides on a cause they want to rally behind, the brand needs to commit. If you’re going to truly make purpose a core part of your business, your organization needs to invest the time and resources —and assign specific responsibilities to particular people—to discuss how the brand’s mission is integrated into every part of its work, hold one another accountable, and have an action plan. It’s okay if how your organization shows its purpose changes over time or takes on different iterations, but that can’t happen unless there’s real commitment to making a difference throughout an organization.

Lastly, if you’re sincere about wanting to drive impactful change, you need to have hard metrics you can point to, measure, and compare – year over year. Make no mistake: You’ll have missteps, and it’s hard when the goals you set and the actual results you achieve don’t add up. But those metrics are a key part of evolving, and given that almost two-thirds of companies aren’t measuring their cause-related campaigns’ impact, actually analyzing your purpose-driven work will really set you apart in this industry. Without that hard data, there’s no way to showcase your serious commitment to a cause and improve.

I get it: Completely overhauling a brand to be truly and authentically purpose-driven can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It’s also a lot less glamorous than just doing work to get prizes and splashy features. But it’s time for us as an industry to put our money where our mouth is and change the way we talk about swaying opinion—and driving action.

As I launch my consultancy The Sway Effect this week, I plan on putting my long-time commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion front and center. After years of work with organizations like UN Women, I’m excited to contribute to the statistics of agencies making a difference for the long haul. I’m ready! Are you?

Jennifer Risi is the founder and president of The Sway Effect

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