Are brands ‘whying’ to themselves?

The idea of purpose doesn’t reflect how consumers interact with brands on a daily basis

I think we all have to be honest, your job is to sell soap, soup, fast food, electronics. Your job is to sell shit, by hook or [by] crook. 

With purpose-driven campaigns continuing to generate industry headlines and plaudits in equal measure, the words of Spike Lee at the recent Cannes Lions Festival feel like a very timely reminder.

Over the last decade the idea of ‘purpose’ has become a core tenet of brand marketing, and it is easy to understand why it would be so appealing to us marketers. As an industry we are routinely vilified, being consistently voted less trustworthy than bankers, estate agents and politicians. In the face of such disdain, the search for noble causes that provide meaning and motivation behind our work makes a lot of sense. Why settle for being a corporate shill when you could help solve inequality or save the planet? However, in the eyes of consumers, there is one thing worse than unashamedly selling products: trying to pretend you are not by hiding behind the veil of something seemingly more meaningful.

There is an inherent tension between the advertising industry’s conception of brand purpose and the true commercial purpose of businesses, which is to create profits for their shareholders. In other words: sell stuff. Unless the company’s organisational model was specifically created to serve a different purpose (and there are many models designed to do this), any suggestion of brand purpose will always remain secondary. This should be no surprise given the fact that it is often generated by the marketing department rather than the business itself. It is a conflict that has the potential to be extremely problematic when it is not interrogated properly — a fact of which consumers are well aware.

In the years since the advertising industry conceived of the idea of purpose (following the 2008 financial crash) it has become clear that it is rife with inconsistencies

Audiences are increasingly savvy when it comes to so-called purpose-driven marketing and the often chasm-like gap between words and actions, calling out insincere marketing efforts for greenwashing and tokenism. And, in fact, if you look at consumer behaviour, people’s own attitudes can be inconsistent too. Whilst there is a clear desire to act on social and environmental issues, it is often more pragmatic factors that drive purchase decisions — just look at the parallel rise of fast fashion and throwaway tech during the same period.

Whilst purpose-driven campaigns continue to dominate industry awards, their ability to drive better business outcomes remains somewhat less clear. Undoubtedly there are great examples of the work when it is done well, but taken as a whole it is hard to isolate purpose as a consistent driver of commercial success. And why should it be? Campaigns with a true purpose should have a set of entirely different metrics.

The reality is that the idea of purpose doesn’t reflect how consumers interact with brands on a daily basis

How marketers conceive brands from within the business is not necessarily how consumers perceive brands out in the world, which is based on the small ways in which they interact with them in their daily lives. Yes it is certainly a nice idea and one that can be very appealing on the surface, but it can lack real meaning in consumers’ lives unless it affects them directly. 

The real question that you have to ask is: what clear, concrete and incontrovertible value are you actually providing to consumers? Are you helping to build and support communities in tangible ways, or are you simply providing pure entertainment and escapism? Perhaps you’re just offering a small treat or a moment of joy in people’s lives. In some cases, it may well be something purposeful, and, if so, great — I’m absolutely all for it. But equally it could be something a lot less grandiose but no less valuable to people.

Featured image: Christian Diokno / Pexels

Sam Collenette, Senior Strategist at DRUM

Sam Collenette is a culturally-curious strategist, currently working as a Senior Strategist at DRUM in London. Moving between agency and client-side roles, start-ups and global organisations, Sam has spent the last decade working with companies to solve a range of business and communications challenges. Starting his career in editorial and PR, Sam’s experience has since spanned social media, content and marketing strategy. Having played a leadership role in delivering content and digital experiences at historic photography agency Magnum Photos and global charity Save the Children, Sam now works across the breadth of briefs at DRUM. Over the duration of his career, he has worked with a broad range of clients and talent across sectors, including Audi, Bacardi, Coors Light, HSBC, O2 and Samsung

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