How bad research underpins the social purpose marketing debate

Leading questions and researcher bias have fuelled the social purpose orthodoxy, which marketers are only now acknowledging has no basis in evidence.

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In 2019, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G, said: “More than half of people are making choices on brands based on shared values and more than half of people from gen Z all the way to boomers really expect brands to take a stand on societal issues.”

So imagine my surprise when he recently suggested that some companies are overusing purpose marketing at the expense of brand growth.

Critics of social purpose strategies have long argued this point, but I found it somewhat ironic, coming from the man who’s done more to push the social purpose marketing agenda than most. Let’s not forget that social purpose has always been predicated on being a key driver of purchase behaviour. So it begs the question: how can Pritchard go from confidently proclaiming its importance to saying it’s actually not that influential after all?

My hope is that he’s finally engaging with the right kind of evidence, and coming to terms with the fact that most people don’t buy brands based on social purpose messaging. You might be wondering what I mean by the ‘right kind of evidence’, so let me explain.

Social purpose marketing strategies are more or less underpinned by very basic agree/disagree statements designed to elicit a certain response.

Social purpose marketing has evolved in a very similar fashion to other industry fads. It starts with a few heavyweights proclaiming a changing behaviour or the importance of a new technology, and then marketers, consultancies and the research industry seek to prove and then reinforce this new orthodoxy. The problem is that the research that underpins the case for social purpose marketing is so poor, it has led marketers to an alternate version of reality – far removed from how ordinary people buy brands and products.

Three tips to help you spot bad research

No evidence base

When social purpose started to gain traction, despite what was being said, it was simply a hypothesis (some would argue it still is). There was no evidence that people buy brands based on social purpose messaging, or that it would become increasingly important in the years ahead.

Our job as marketers is to be evidence-based, so at that point, the role of research should have been to prove or disprove the hypothesis, regardless of our personal feelings on the subject. Unfortunately, the research industry conveniently skipped that part, resulting in a generation of marketers blindly accepting their findings with minimal scrutiny.

Social purpose marketing strategies are more or less underpinned by very basic agree/disagree statements designed to elicit a certain response. Here are some of the greatest hits:

  • 62% say their purchasing decisions are influenced by a company’s ethical values and authenticity
  • 74% crave transparency into how companies source their products, ensure safe working conditions and their stance on important issues (three questions in one here, but I’ll ignore that for now)
  • 62% want companies to take a stand on social, cultural, environmental and political issues close to their hearts
  • 60% of people say they are happy to pay more for brands that promote sustainability

It seems strange that I have to point this out, but these findings don’t make the case for social purpose marketing. All they tell us is that people give socially desirable responses, and there is a clear gap between what people say and what people do (the poorer the research design, the wider the gap tends to be).

More importantly, these types of questions bear no resemblance to real buying situations and how people choose brands. Despite this, studies that follow this formula are published regularly and quoted by marketers with alarming frequency.

Where is the critical thinking? You only have to consider the success of the likes of Amazon, to become highly sceptical when confronted with this type of research.

An unbiased methodology is needed

So how do we measure the factors that influence people’s buying habits in a robust and meaningful way? The first thing we need to acknowledge is that buying behaviour is much more complex than a few agree/disagree statements. The research design must try and reflect the nature of how we buy brands and products, as there are always conflicting motivations.

The approach I have always taken is to ask a very straightforward question – when it comes to buying brands or products, what are the most important things to you? Respondents select from a list of 13 reasons, such as customer service, value, quality and reliability, alongside social purpose factors such as a brand’s position on social issues and sustainability of the product. Respondents can select as many or as little as they like.

This approach means that we aren’t asking the importance of each factor in isolation, so it will essentially give us a ranking. Crucially, this is a very simple and unbiased way of proving or disproving the social purpose narrative.

I’ve run this question a number of times over the last four years, and the results have remained consistent. Value for money (81%), reliability (67%), and product/service quality (66%) are always the most important factors.

Social purpose? It tells a very different story to the current industry narrative – less than one in 10 people say a brand’s position on social issues or its political stance and affiliations is an important factor when buying brands and products. Nowhere near half the people number Marc Pritchard and others claim.

Even sustainability is lower than most people would anticipate, at 32%, and our latest data (being published in a few weeks) shows that this number is declining significantly as the cost of living crisis takes hold. Perhaps surprisingly to the gen Z-obsessed, these results are consistent across all age groups.

You can also take a slightly more complex approach to this using a ‘max-diff’ methodology. This is used to quantify preferences, and asks respondents what is most and least important. I have also used this for buying motivations, and it tells exactly the same story.

There is clearly a very large disconnect between what marketers think influences buying decisions and what actually works. It seems that Marc Pritchard might be seeing the light. Will you?

Andrew Tenzer (@thetenzer on TikTok and Twitter) is director of market insight and brand strategyReach. He will be speaking at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing on 6 October about the state of market research – what’s working and what’s not. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Festival website.