Why we can’t stop debating Purpose-marketing, and never should

Yesterday it was Gillette and Nike. Today, it’s Lego. We find ourselves enveloped in a trend that shows no signs of slowing down: ‘Purpose’ is on everyone’s lips, and every day it seems a new company jumps on the bandwagon with a campaign that gets our tongues wagging.

On a brand safari in Chicago this summer, I spotted purpose-marketing campaigns on every corner. Photo by Clarissa Sparks

The purpose-marketing debate is not new

Oliverio Toscani’s ads for Benetton sparked a decade long debate in the 1990s about the ethics of using fashion and advertising to advocate social justice issues

First, let’s separate purpose-marketing from purpose-led brands

Let’s not confuse a single ‘purpose-driven’ ad campaign, focussed on a single social issue and running for a couple of weeks, with a brand whose product, supply chain, production process, HR policies, finances, partnerships, and communications are all lead by a social and environmentally sustainable purpose. Once we are clear on which of the two we are actually talking about, the debate becomes a little easier to grasp.

Purpose-marketing: Fast food chain KFC fixing potholes in Louisville, Kentucky (photo: KFC)
Purpose-driven brand: Kenyan brand Burn Manufacturing creates cookstoves that address deforestation, improve health challenges for users, and provide much needed financial savings in low-income communities (Photo: Burn Manufacturing)

Sometimes it’s good…

If you believe that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct, you could argue that the overall positive impact of a purpose-marketing campaign in changing hearts and minds outweighs the ulterior, self-serving motives of a company.

Does the increase in overall awareness of the negative impact of flying make up for positive effect on KLM’s brand which its Fly Responsibly campaign creates?

Sometimes it’s bad

If we judge conduct by the degree to which ideals are put into action, you could argue that purpose-marketing is morally justifiable if companies walk their talk.

Purpose-marketing is only effective when it is controversial, a dangerous strategy in already polarized societies.

Twitter doesn’t blow up when an airline champions the work of UNICEF in a marketing campaign. That’s safe territory. No one will disagree with feeding malnourished children. It won’t get us talking, and therefore it won’t help the company’s bottom line, so we won’t see big marketing budgets thrown at that type of campaign right now. But an airline that tells people to fly less, now that will get some eyeballs!

Whether we believe purpose-marketing is a good or bad development mostly depends on our own value system and political views

Around the time President Trump was elected I received a message from a FastCompany reporter, asking me if I thought all companies should have a social purpose. I was out in the field with very little connectivity, and replied quickly: “Yes, but only if they are aligned with my own political beliefs.”, and told her to give me a call. She never did.

A Ben & Jerry’s post on the Trump administration drew a wave of comments, including the predictable: stick to what you are good at.

Which got me thinking: how would I respond if Starbucks would launch a ‘Guns Welcome’ campaign? How would I feel if IKEA started a ‘Families First’ campaign to support the anti-abortion movement?

An aggressive Instagram post would probably be the kindest of my responses.

Certainly, no one can refute that the N.R.A. (the American National Rifle Association) is a purpose-driven brand with some pretty strong purpose-marketing campaigns, yet I’ve never seen anyone use them as an example that extols the merits of the trend.

As a matter of fact, how we interpret brand purpose, and how we measure its success, is pretty biased, as Richard Shotton points out.

Where do we go from here?

Is purpose-marketing a good or a bad development? Sometimes good, if proven to make a difference for a cause you support, sometimes bad, if ineffective or counter-effective in advancing your beliefs.

Let’s discuss!

I’d love to hear what you think. And I’d love to have more sources of reliable data. Do you have data on the social impact of brands changing minds through purpose-marketing campaigns? Are there examples of purpose-marketing or ‘purpose-driven’ brands on the right side of the political spectrum? Do you know a brand that is publicly espousing conservative social issues with campaigns or other branding or marketing mechanisms? Let me know in a comment, I really appreciate it.

Thank you

A big thanks to the members of our Brand The Change network for reading the first draft of this article and providing valuable feedback and input, in particular: Anya Liddiard, Marieke Griffioen, David Hoogland, Anne Fenn, Kristin Leitch, Carlos Arturo Aguilar, Claudia Chow, Sandra de Jong and Nasuha Suhali.

More of my writing on brands and social impact

Brand the Change, the guidebook — A full guide to building brands for change, with 13 case studies, 22 tools, the anatomy of a strong brand explained, and 5 guest essays by brand experts with tips and tricks on everything from trademarking to PR.

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.

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