Are brands missing the point of purpose?

by Guest Contributor Graham Page | June 19, 2019

Author: Graham Page

Graham Page
Managing Director, Offer & Innovation

Brands are increasingly turning to the power of purpose to connect with customers and grow sales. But in spite of the growing interest in purpose our analysis suggests that many brands are failing to leverage their true potential and the key lies in how brands communicate with their customers.

Many of us in marketing probably all have the same guilty secret: The gnawing knowledge that despite all the semiotic analysis of our brands’ meaning, and deep understanding of the emotional benefits that our product features ladder up to… our work is probably not fundamentally enriching people’s lives that much. We’re mainly here to help sell stuff… which doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it?  Which is perhaps one of the reasons why 'purposeful' marketing has become so popular so quickly. “There!” we can tell ourselves, “I can show people how my brand changes the world for the better, AND hit my targets”.

Now – I’m not arguing that brands shouldn’t seek to make the world a better place – that seems to be a clear moral imperative. And there is good evidence that consumer expectations about brand ethics are changing, and brands that are seen as doing broader good for society are more successful than average. Kantar data from BrandZ has shown that repeatedly, and Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report  has shown that both employee and investor attraction is stronger if a brand has a broader purpose. However – what do you do if your brand wasn’t founded on a strong ethical principle? Our advice: don’t fake it. Just claiming higher values and aspirations is far worse than sticking to your knitting of finding a strong product and positioning and engaging consumers with that. And we can see that clearly if we look at the success or otherwise of “purposeful” advertising.

In a recent webinar Kantar gave alongside our emotion AI partners, Affectiva, we examined what makes a great “purposeful” campaign, using data from the 200,000 ads in the Link pre-testing database. Perhaps surprisingly given the interest in this strategy, we found that ads which have a “purposeful” message are no more effective, on average, than any other ad. And the reason seemed to be that in many cases, viewers simply couldn’t understand why the brand was talking about it. In other words – unless it’s clear how the brand contributes to addressing a social tension – consumers are likely to tune out. In contrast, when the fit between the brand and the cause was clear – ad effectiveness rocketed.


In addition, when campaigns both allowed viewers to see how the brand contributed to the cause, and wrapped that in emotionally engaging storytelling (as measured by facial expressions), ads took a further step forward in effectiveness. 

It seems that not surprisingly, consumers can see 'purpose-washing' a mile off. If your brand really walks the walk – and consumers can make a positive difference by buying it (and not just to your bottom line), then communicating that purpose can be hugely powerful, especially if it is wrapped in effective, emotional storytelling. However, wrapping a brand in a veneer of purpose is not going to cut it -and brings not just an opportunity cost, but a reputational risk as well. But why do you think so many marketers try to force fit a purpose to their brand? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Anita , June 20, 2019
    Couldn't agree more Graham! To add on, the purpose narrative needs to be multi dimensional and it needs to be built slowly over time to be genuinely credible. It needs to go beyond a clever advertising and reflect in how their business and operational models speak to their purpose. Eg. its not enough for an Ikea to tell me that they flat pack their goods to save waste but when they tell me that every store has solar panels built into it and they are working to come off the electricity grid, that's when their sustainability ethic truly kicks in. 

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