Are purpose-led campaigns eroding brand building?

Five smart marketers give us their thoughts

Purpose… it’s always in the minds of marketers. Or at least in the last ten years it has been. And yet in recent years purpose has begun to spark debate, in terms of its effectiveness when it comes to actually building a brand. We asked a handful of contributors to the magazine where they stood on this issue.

Elizabeth Anyaegbuna — Co-Founder of 16×9 Media and President of Bloom UK

Elizabeth Anyaegbuna

Once, brand building in the main, centred on glossy but generic messaging arguably lacking deeper purpose. Today, its reported, 87% of British consumers expect more — championing causes forges connections, building affinity. Campaigns like Dove’s shape-positive ‘Real Women’ drive engagement by tackling issues head on. Yet, the Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi fiasco proved cynicism around ‘purpose washing’. Consumers spot virtue signalling versus real impact a mile off. Though many support brands acting responsibly, it’s got to be genuine. Take Ben & Jerry’s — retaining its quirky personality and high quality ice cream, while advocating for racial justice and environmental issues. This blends classic branding with reflecting today’s conscience, building on heritage whilst bravely catching cultural winds in the sails. Pull that off skilfully, as they have, and purpose elevates brand (and return).

So no, authentic purpose doesn’t erode brand building, it lifts it — driving icons when basics and bravery unite.

Chris West — CEO at Verbal Identity

Chris West

I turned down what would have been my biggest paying client ever, because they wanted me to rewrite their purpose. Their purpose statement was carefully prepared (at a cost of more than £1m) by a well-known PR company. And what they had was just a skilful rearrangement of the same words as every other global corporate: ‘sustainability’, ‘conscious’, ‘planet’. It was the brand world’s version of costume jewellery: designed to give the appearance of value, but ultimately being ersatz. But I turned it down, because they now wanted a polish of what the CEO had written one weekend. He’d obviously been an MBA in the ’90s, when students were literally asked to chant in unison, ‘The purpose of a company is to make money for its shareholders’. There was no ‘purpose’ to their purpose.

Samit Malkani — Head of Brand and Social Marketing at Google

Samit Malkani

‘Purpose’? Don’t get me wrong, it’s the kale smoothie of the brand world – trendy, potent, and sometimes a bit much. But before you guzzle down the latest cause, remember this: not every brand needs a cape. Some just need to bake the damn cookie, fuel the damn workout, and connect us through the damn coffee. Their purpose? To serve, authentically, relentlessly. Which is in itself, is worthy of applause. But for those who choose the path of purpose, authenticity is the only passport. No greenwashing, no performative activism. Pick a cause woven into the fabric of your business, one where your actions not just words, speak volumes. Because true purpose isn’t a marketing stunt, it’s the soul of your brand. And only when it shines through will you truly connect, not just resonate. That’s where long-lasting love and brand health truly take root.

Ruchi Sharma — Founder and CCO at HumanSense

Ruchi Sharma

Everything in marketing and advertising is about relevance. And thus, if the purpose is relevant to the brand’s DNA, then sure, go ahead. But not if endorsing the latest social cause with the flavour-of-the-month celebrity is trendy. And our intelligent consumer knows the difference! Before deciding to embrace ‘purpose-driven work’ brands need to be ‘purposeful’ in their evaluation. I call it the 4As test and encourage my clients to evaluate against this. They need to get a score of at least 3As to proceed: Is the purpose authentic to the brand personality? Is it aligned with its core values? Will it help consumers admire the brand more for supporting this cause? Will it add to the sales and bottom line? A couple of good purposeful brands: Patagonia is one that has aligned its purpose to sustainability and responsible business practices, admirably earning respect for its authenticity. So did Lifebuoy’s campaign in India, with ‘Help a child reach 5’, encouraging proper handwashing hygiene to prevent lethal diseases.

Giles Lury — author and Senior Director at The Value Engineers

Giles Lury

Without wanting to sound like a politician I’m sitting on the fence; as it depends on the brand what its ‘purpose’ is, and what the campaign is. In other words that’s a definitive ‘maybe’. If it’s the famous ‘Don’t buy this jacket‘ campaign for Patagonia, then the answer is no. The brand, its purpose and the campaign are all aligned beautifully, and contributed to brand building. If it’s the infamous Pepsi ad, featuring Kendall Jenner handing out cans of Pepsi to help pacify a clash between protestors and the police, then my answer is yes. A loose link between brand and purpose and heavy-handed execution didn’t help the brand, but rather hindered it. Viewers complained that the ad trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement, and Pepsi pulled the campaign.

Less obvious perhaps, but more interesting, are brands with ‘lower’ order purposes, but which truly deliver against that purpose. BrewDog springs to mind within this category. Interestingly, all this fits with the statement from Hein Schumacher, the new CEO of Unilever, who signalled a move away from the previous strategy, where every brand had to have a higher order purpose. He said that giving certain brands a social or environmental purpose ‘simply won’t be relevant, or it will be an unwelcome distraction’. So my one word answer to this question is ‘maybe’. The longer one is, ‘it depends…’ And the key factor is a clear link between a brand and its purpose.

Featured image: Markus Spiske / Pexels