I was asked recently to give a talk answering the question ‘does brand purpose really drive profit?’. My very short answer to it was ‘yes it can, but mostly it probably doesn’t’.
And the slightly longer answer to it was ‘it really depends, but on balance brand purpose is over-used in marketing today and its power over-stated, and it’s actually best used as a business tool by companies that are genuinely committed to conscious capitalism, rather than as a bolt-on by marketing teams looking for a quick sales fix’.
I suspect no robust data analysis will ever prove conclusively that it’s better for brands to be ‘purposeful’ than for them not to be. By cherry-picking case studies, you could probably make whatever argument you wanted for or against it: whether that’s highlighting examples that show purpose can drive profit or by cherry-picking examples of brands getting it wrong, in order to suggest it can’t. Or if you want to undermine the whole concept of purpose entirely, pointing to brands pretending to be purposeful, or even highlighting the many highly successful non-purposeful brands.
So it’s quite easy to cherry-pick examples to make whatever case you want. In fact one of the people who made purpose so popular in business and marketing was ex-P&G Global Marketing Officer, Jim Stengel, whose book, ‘Grow’, was founded on essentially a big cherry-picking exercise where he took the top 50 performing brands on a measure of brand strength and claimed that what linked them, and so accounted for their success, was that they all had a brand ideal to make the world a better place in some way – I recommend you look up Richard Shotton’s article and talks on this as he rips apart the data behind Stengel’s book in a way that I’m not going to do justice to. But it’s a very compelling case.
I will pick two cherries of my own though just to show you I’m not actually a purpose sceptic, just a sceptic of certain types of supposedly ‘purposeful’ brand communications. A personal favourite example is Timpsons, a UK shoe repair chain, who do amazing work employing ex-prisoners, and repeatedly get listed as one of the top 10 best companies to work for. They don’t even use the word ‘purpose’, and you’ll never see them running empowering TV ads humbly bragging about the good they do, but by most definitions they look pretty purposeful. An example close to me is Barclays, which has been on a journey of internal transformation since the Libor scandal, that has helped it discover for itself a more positive role in society via fantastic initiatives like Digital Eagles and LifeSkills. Barclays saw a return on investment from its advertising about these societal initiatives far stronger than the ROI for ads talking about current accounts and mortgages. It’s a kind of marketing alchemy that Barclays ‘purpose-led’ advertising about them helping young people with job interview techniques sold hundreds of millions of pounds worth of mortgages. That’s clearly a win-win. But for every Barclays, there’s a handful of other brands with pseudo-purposeful ad campaigns that are clearly just cynical attempts to jump on board a societal issue in order to grab some headlines and turn around flagging sales.
So overall I think there are probably 3 broad types of brands that define themselves as having a purpose that we see in the marketing world. Imagine three concentric circles containing three types. At the bullseye we see brands that are Born Purposeful, often founder-led, often small, niche, usually founded with a societal purpose and where purpose goes across the whole business operation. Toms and Patagonia are perhaps the most often-cited examples of this. No one ever seems to argue about brands like this – very clear purposes, and business models designed to balance purpose and profit. In the middle concentric circle we see a second type, which tend to be Corporate Converts – often larger businesses which have adopted the concept of purpose more recently. They usually seem to genuinely want to make a positive difference to the world alongside making money, sometimes to correct past wrongs or just to become a better corporate citizen. They’re by definition on a journey of transforming themselves and are often more complex businesses, and because of that they may have to make pragmatic decisions that favour profit over purpose in certain instances. They may not have a business model that’s built around their purpose. They may have certain voices internally who are more committed to their purpose than others, and they’re likely not to have a founder present who’s committed to keeping the business permanently in line with its purpose in all its decision-making. So they’re naturally a greyer area. Purpose often becomes a new type of business vision or Northstar for these kinds of brands – they will typically need to find a space at the top of their strategy pyramid for their new purpose.
And there’s a third kind, on the outer circle, which I would call Pseudo-purposeful brands – these are the ones for which purpose is just a new ad campaign claiming to try and solve an issue like gender or racial equality, or toxic masculinity or whatever the most resonant topic is that their social listening data says is trending with their demographic that month. This is the kind of purpose that’s least likely to become embedded across every function of a business, it was probably cooked up in the marketing department, and so is far less likely to take root within an entire organisation, be taken seriously and gain long-term investment. And so it’s far less likely to be profitable in the long-term.
So there are probably three types of purposeful brand: 1. Brands that are Born Purposeful, 2. The Corporate Converts, 3. The Pseudo-purposeful brands doing what’s recently been labelled ‘woke advertising’. And the likelihood of purpose driving a profit probably decreases from type 1 to 3.
And whilst it’s fairly obvious that, like most things, brand purpose sits on a spectrum, the debates about purpose in marketing always seem to be hugely divided, with the industry’s biggest beasts all coming down firmly on one side or the other. Unilever’s Keith Weed and Tesco’s Dave Lewis are believers. But two of marketing’s most well-known Professors, Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson are non-believers, who tend to see marketing’s obsession with purpose as a sign that marketers have lost confidence and pride in their core task – to sell.
The simplest, most no-nonsense view, is this, expressed by Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who when asked about brand purpose said simply: “A brand’s purpose is to sell stuff.”
Mark Ritson, says this: “Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s…they were founded with purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit.” Ritson tends to see Purpose, with some specific exceptions, as bad marketing practice, unlikely to lead to brand differentiation and lacking in relevance for most consumers. He sees most purpose marketing as failing to help brands create relevant differentiation, help them stand out from the crowd in a way that motivates consumers. He also attacks purpose as a layer of bullshit applied to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible consumers. Writing about Starbucks he said this: “Time and again we encounter the lofty, admirable sheen of brand purpose only to discover it flakes off with even the slightest scratch to reveal a darker, more commercial sub-surface beneath. Starbucks’ famous mission ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time’ is about as lofty as it gets. But it contradicts mightily the company’s abject inability to align its tax responsibilities accordingly”.
Byron Sharp not only sees deception and duplicity going on with marketing’s obsession with Purpose – but also spots something a bit deeper – a level of self-deception, even self-loathing going on here amongst marketers. He says “[Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff. I think that’s terrible. If marketers don’t stand up for marketing, who will?”
Very few people in marketing seem to disagree with the importance of brand purpose when the examples cited are companies built on progressive business models that successfully share the proceeds of growth in order to help alleviate a societal problem. But when advertising becomes a significant part of the conversation about purpose, things tend to go awry. In fact, my view is that if being purposeful means doing ads to you, then you’re probably doing it wrong.
So that’s where I stand. But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where brand purpose became simultaneously the most pervasive yet divisive concept in marketing? How can we explain the rise and dominance of brand purpose in early 21st century marketing?
My answer to that last question is this.
The dominance of brand purpose in marketing is perhaps the inevitable consequence of advertising people being told by everyone else, for about 150 years now, that they’re liars. That what they do is deceitful, that it’s of little or no positive value to society, that it doesn’t matter. Constantly hearing this view has helped give many advertising people a feeling of self-doubt about the role they play in society.
An Ipsos-Mori poll from 2018 found that ad execs are the least trusted profession in the UK, with only 18% of respondents saying they trust ad execs to tell the truth. That’s worse than estate agents, journalists, even politicians. A long-running study with over six decades of data, suggests that around 70% of the public tend to see advertising as untruthful – and that this number has stayed more or less stable for all of that time. This tallies with a finding from the Advertising Association that trust in the ad industry overall was around 30% in 2018.
And my theory is that perhaps advertising people have subconsciously sought in response – through their eager adoption of the concept of brand purpose – to prove they can be of value to society and that their work can do some good. The great irony here being that a response which has resulted in advertising people pretending, for example, that a brand of carbonated sugar water can solve some of society’s biggest issues, will actually have the opposite of the intended consequence: most of the pseudo-purposeful advertising out there just makes ad people and their output seem even more deceitful.
Advertising people have always sought to present themselves as respectable, responsible corporate citizens in the face of the strong suspicion that they’re not. You only have to look at the agency names DDB, BBDO, WPP, Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson, to see agencies trying to present themselves as respectable, professional people, to sound like lawyers or accountants. David Ogilvy’s schtick was to present himself as the refined aristocrat of advertising amongst the sharks and hucksters of New York. Despite or even because of the legalistic name, the New York agency BBDO, was nicknamed, by none other than President Harry S Truman, as ‘Bunco, Bull, Deceipt and Obfuscation’. Bill Bernbach built his agency DDB’s reputation on the idea that he was selling ‘the truth wrapped in wit’, in order to stand out against the deceitful salesmanship expected of the time, with ads that themselves told extreme versions of the truth like ‘Lemon’ for the VW Beetle.
‘The Adman’s Dilemma – from Barnum to Trump’ is a fascinating book by the cultural historian Paul Rutherford, which for me goes some way to explain why advertising has always been and remains one of the least trusted professions, and why advertising is seen by so many as a kind of licensed deception. It chronicles the prevailing anti-advertising cultural narrative since advertising’s early days in the mid-19th century from PT Barnum right up to the present day. Rutherford starts with Barnum whose skill deceiving a gullible public helped him achieve a reputation as the king of false advertising, ‘the uber-Huckster’.
Rutherford’s book chronicles the public outcry, and subsequent regulatory response, to the advertising of the patent medicine moguls in the US – who for several decades from around the 1880’s used mass communication to deceitfully claim their medicines could cure people of almost every medical problem. The most famous patent medicine born in this era of course being Coca Cola which was introduced in 1886.
The book goes on to discuss how the 1950’s and 60’s saw one of the most famous moments in the anti-advertising movement when a series of bestsellers including ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ by journalist Vance Packard caused a moral panic about the nefarious and deceitful psychological techniques supposedly being used by the newly ubiquitous TV advertisers. There are clear parallels I think between the scares of the ‘50’s and the scares we have now about the use of our personal data by Facebook as well as the use of psychometric targeting for political advertising in elections. Whatever side you’re on in the debate about Facebook, the demonization of Mark Zuckerberg clearly has parallels with this trope of the adman as public manipulator and arch-deceiver.
Perhaps the most relevant anti-advertising episode for a discussion about brand purpose is Naomi Klein’s 1999 global bestseller ‘No Logo’. Klein’s book was an unashamedly anti-capitalist attack on the negative societal impact of advertising, which pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the global brands appropriating social and moral values whilst also engaging in questionable employment and environmental practices, in a fore-shadowing of the critiques of some of today’s more obviously pseudo-purposeful advertising.
By highlighting some of the worse behaviour of global brands, No Logo played its role in subsequent efforts by big businesses to clean up their acts and become good corporate citizens. Which in turn is leading to many businesses becoming more purposeful and taking on the philosophy that’s now called conscious capitalism.
To Rutherford, Mad Men’s Don Draper is the archetypal sufferer of the ‘adman’s dilemma’, of whom he says ‘whatever success he found, he found his life empty, hollow, he searched for some experience more real, more authentic’, and quotes Don Draper’s Stepfather saying to him “You’re a bum, what do you do, what do you make? You grow bullshit.”
So given the way advertising has always been portrayed in culture, it’s not hard to see why ad people would jump at the chance to show they’re respectable professionals whose work can have a positive impact on society. But in choosing to jump so fulsomely onto the brand purpose bandwagon we may just be making matters worse for ourselves.
When what we really need to do to prove our value to society, is to prove our commercial value first and foremost – to have pride in the value we create and so demonstrate the role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forwards. There’s plenty of genuine virtue to be had in that.
In the final scene of the final episode of Mad Men, we see Don Draper meditating on a clifftop, and as if in a eureka moment in his meditative state, we cut to the famous 1971 Coke ad ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. So we see a fictionalised advertising genius dreaming up a real celebration of peace, love and harmony, an idealised depiction of hippie culture, and appropriating it for a genuine commercial for the world’s most famous and valuable brand. It’s a fittingly brilliant blend of fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice.
It’s simply the most perfect ending for the show to have Don Draper, the archetypal, self-deceiving adman, whilst himself searching for a more authentic, more purposeful existence, dreaming up for a brand of carbonated sugar water, what may well have been the Patient Zero of all the pseudo-purposeful advertising that would follow in the decades ahead.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect representation of advertising’s complex and uneasy relationship with truth, lies and brand purpose.