Brand purpose is bland and meaningless: How brands can be better at being good
Does brand purpose need a rethink? Sean Pillot de Chenecey finds some organisations who are doing it properly to establish what we can learn from them.
An approach that was originally based on a well-meaning and progressive point of view, but has become so bland and overdone as to be almost meaningless when done by most organisations is brand purpose.
Bluntly put, perhaps a great deal of the enthusiasm for this goes down to a sense of collective self-loathing. The last few years have seen an onslaught of reports illuminating the utter pointlessness of the vast majority of advertising, i.e. that most is never noticed, and when it is, is neither liked, remembered, nor leads to a positive outcome.
Brand purpose is an example of a well-meaning but delusional element of virtue signalling on behalf of those working in the elitist world of agencies. A more accurate description would be ‘social virtue’ marketing strategies.
However, and to be fair, this sits at odds with reports from the likes of Accenture, who in their ‘To affinity and beyond: from me to we’ report stated that ‘62% of customers want brands to “take a stand” on sustainability or fair employment, and 50% are attracted to brands supporting and acting upon causes. Consumers champion brands they believe in and reject those they don’t; with price, product quality and customer experience seen as important but table stakes’.
When it comes to ‘taking a stand’ as Accenture state, I find the thinking of Charles Vallance of the agency VCCP to be fascinating. But as he says, regarding the trend for brands to put themselves at the heart of a polarising issue ‘it seldom works as well as being a unifying force. The strongest brands focus on feeling, fluency and fame. The best communicators all understand feeling and they also understand that feel-good is feeling at its most persuasive. This is something we forget at our peril’ (Vallance, 2019).
But why are brands doing this at all, and is this behaviour genuine?
To clarify this point, I asked Julian Boulding of The Network One for his point of view. He told me that ‘companies and corporates are taking on more of a genuine commitment to social responsibility. This is not unprecedented – if you go back to the beginnings of the 19th century you think, in England, of Lever and Cadbury.
I think there’s an interesting start of a trend there, it’s no longer just “greenwash and avoid the negative” but there’s a really positive feeling which is maybe coming out of a vacuum created by governments abdicating long-term social responsibility’.
So in order to do that credibly, does the somewhat saccharine notion of ‘brand purpose’ need a rethink?
Does brand purpose need a rethink?
For an answer on that, I went to Tom Morton, from one of the industry’s leading agencies, R/GA. He told me that ‘Purpose was in danger of becoming a cliché at the Cannes Lions Award. We saw so many branded crusades on behalf of borrowed causes. Now we’re seeing an evolution of purpose: higher than a dramatised benefit, lower than a crusade, closer to a focus on what’s the best thing the brand does for the world and why people should care about it. It’s more a brand ambition than a moral purpose’.
He went to on to explain some fascinating examples of brands such as Volvo reflecting their purpose in their products or services; e.g. their open-source sharing of research into why women were being injured more than men in road accidents.
Another that I found particularly interesting, because it’s so practical, is IKEA. As explained by Tom ‘they have an initiative called “Thisables” because something like 10% of IKEA customers have some form of disability, and people with disabilities feel more disabled inside their own home. So IKEA provide little add-ons that are disabled-friendly, such as handles you can put on doors to make opening them easier if you don’t have a lot of arm-strength. That’s close to the business and expresses IKEA’s values through the design of the product and service innovation.
Purpose was in danger of becoming a cliché at the Cannes Lions Award. We saw so many branded crusades on behalf of borrowed causes. Now we’re seeing an evolution of purpose.
Once we get to a place where “purpose” becomes “the impact you have in the world and why people should care” and brands reflect that through useful innovation rather than “cry your eyes out” long-form films, then we’ll see how much growth a purpose can unlock for a brand. What we find at R/GA is that a purpose or an ambition is vital when you’re designing a business, or an eco-system or service. Just as the traditional advertising business has started asking whether films about causes are the right form of advertising, we’re finding that services built on values and purpose are the new bedrock of how you build a brand’.
I find that sort of thinking incredibly inspiring. But meanwhile, what about NGO brands that were founded on a ‘social purpose cause’ but who find themselves competing for attention against others who are creating powerfully emotive communication?
Amnesty International is an organisation that really does have ‘genuine purpose’ running through its DNA. I spoke with Thomas Coombes, their Head of Brand, who explained how ‘from the angle of people’s hopes and fears we realised that just focusing on “all the bad things” and what we were against, as opposed to what we’re for, was becoming less effective. Particularly in a populist environment full of negative stories. Essentially, we needed to respond to harmful populist narratives by promoting one based on kindness and belonging.’
So when it comes to specific cause-related campaigns, what did they actually do?
‘We want to talk about “the world people want to see” rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes. We want them to think about “what does it look like when you act on your values?” So, for instance, we indicated how individuals had stood up for victims of oppression, showing “how to do Human Rights” and how people can act on their own sense of humanity.
When it comes to communicating an anti-racism message, for instance, now we also talk of positive realities of non-racist actions and behaviour. We also wanted to look at things from the point of view of innovation and creativity. We want brands and organisations to promote that vision; to articulate their values via a storytelling strategy based on empathy’.
Which is an amazingly inspiring message.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey is the author of Influencers & Revolutionaries: How innovative trailblazers, trends & catalysts are transforming business, published by Kogan Page.
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Sean Pillot de Chenecey is a trend researcher and strategist who has worked with leading brands for over 20 years. His previous book ‘The Post-Truth Business’ was the first business title to connect the areas of trust, transparency, privacy, empathy and ethics re: the societal impact of disinformation, misinformation and surveillance capitalism...