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'Brand purpose' delivering ad impact but Nike dissent demonstrates its dangers

Brand purpose is delivering advertising impact, according to research - but it can backfire badly, as Nike is currently finding to its cost. 

15th Oct 2019
Contributor MyCustomer
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Brand purpose advertising
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New research has demonstrated the advertising impact that organisations are having by marketing their ‘brand purpose’. But the findings are accompanied by a warning that the tactic can backfire, as Nike is currently finding to its detriment.

New research by System1, reveals that one in five of the most powerful TV ads now focus on ‘brand purpose’, with 20% of the most effective and emotive ads from 100 marketing categories in the UK and US linking company brand to a wider cause.

The most powerful adverts of the 21,000 that have been broadcast since January 2018 were those tied to already popular areas. Many of these were traditional ‘cause-related marketing’ subjects, such as helping animals, cancer patients or veterans.

In the US, for example, the highest scoring ‘five-star’ ad was from wireless telecoms provider Verizon, which supports veterans’ charity, the Wounded Warrior Project, and showed a montage of home phone footage of returning soldiers. Battersea Cats and Dogs Home came out top in the UK, meanwhile, with its ‘animal journalists’ advert, starring a range of rescued pets.

Fewer than 1% of all the ads evaluated received a five star rating for emotional effectiveness though, while only 18% gained three stars or more. But identical levels of media investment in a five star advert were found to generate five times the return of an average two star one.

A study last year by management consultancy Accenture backed up this finding, revealing that 62% of consumers reward companies that take a stand on key issues, such as sustainability and fair employment practices.

Adopting the right cause in the right way

But System1’s research also indicated that, in order to reap the benefits, brands really need to adopt the right cause in the right way. Leaping on controversial and divisive topics rather than going for broad-based, inclusive subjects appears to be a dangerous game to play.

Tom Ewing, the firm’s head of marketing, explains: “There’s a gulf between the kind of activist ads the industry celebrates – polarising ones where a brand congratulates itself for ‘taking a stand’ – and purposeful ads, which reach out to a wide audience and make them feel good about the brand and themselves. We believe it’s the second type that’s more likely to grow brands in the long-term.”

One organisation that has recently fallen foul of its own activism is Nike. The US sportswear giant, which ran a celebrated campaign in autumn last year with the tagline: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, has reportedly been caught doing the opposite.

The problem started when Daryl Morey, general manager of basketball team the Houston Rockets, tweeted a message of support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors. The move raised the ire of China, which led to Morey deleting the tweet, but tensions between the two remain.

Nike has now been caught up in the fallout after Reuters reported visiting five of its shops in Beijing and Shanghai, where store managers said “they had been told in recent days via a memo from management that all Rockets merchandise had to be removed”.

While Nike is undoubtedly concerned about upsetting such a huge and important market as China, the company has come in for criticism as a result. One Twitter user altered its ad to read: “Believe in something. Unless it pisses China off.”

Advertising guru Bob Hoffman was equally critical – both of Nike and efforts to capitalise on brand purpose. “Nike self-righteously preaches to us about believing in something at all costs. But when their backbone was tested…they caved like a stale Twinkie,” he wrote.

“Another nail in the coffin of the cynical con game known as "brand purpose”.”

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