The brand purpose debate: Is the pendulum swinging ‘too hard’?

People tend to love or hate brand purpose, but is its real value somewhere in the middle? Top marketers and researchers weigh in.

Earlier this week, renowned effectiveness researcher Peter Field unveiled the results of a new study into the impact of brand purpose, which showed that well-executed purpose campaigns can drive above average business effects for brands.

Comparing 47 brand purpose cases from the IPA Effectiveness Awards Databank with 333 non-purpose cases, Field said the number of very large business effects for strong purpose campaigns averaged at 2.1, which was highlighted as being well above the 1.6 benchmark for non-purpose cases as a whole. Similarly, strong purpose cases caused an average of 3.0 very large brand effects, compared to 1.9 for all non-purpose cases.

So while Field was clear that he does not see brand purpose as the holy grail for brands, acknowledging that “an awful lot” of purpose advertising doesn’t have much, “if any” consumer effectiveness to talk about, he also said that some of the “vitriolic criticism” which he believes is piled on brand purpose around the advertising industry is “naïve and not entirely justified”.

Having said that, the study, funded by food manufacturer Danone, has been met with a great deal of criticism. The likes of Professor Byron Sharp, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, and Richard Shotton, founder of behavioural science consultancy Astroten, have all branded the research flawed.

The primary problem is methodological, with critics dismissing the credibility of research which compares a subset of a category with another category as a whole – in this case, the comparison of just “strong” purpose campaigns with both weak and strong non-purpose campaigns combined.

“Strong campaigns are defined by the research as ‘those that achieved at least one very large improvement across this basket of six business metrics’. They represent a subset of all the purpose campaigns, roughly the top half of performers,” Shotton explains to Marketing Week.Criticism of brand purpose is ‘naïve and unjustified’, claims Peter Field

“Unsurprisingly, those campaigns perform better than all non-purpose campaigns. How could they not? After all, the weakest half of campaigns have been edited out. It’s circular logic”.

What the research should do is to either compare all the purpose campaigns with all non-purpose campaigns, or strong purpose campaigns with strong non-purpose campaigns, Shotton says. “But you can’t come to any meaningful conclusions if you fail to compare like with like.”

Interestingly, the research does offer a like-for-like comparison, which reflects less positively on purpose as a consumer strategy for brands. The average number of “very large business effects” for all non-purpose campaigns stands at 1.6, while for brand purpose campaigns this figure drops to a markedly lower 1.1.

Speaking to Marketing Week before unveiling the research, Field acknowledged that separating out top performing purpose cases from weak cases might seem like an “analytical trick”, but suggested it still proves an overall point: that well-executed brand purpose can work and can drive strong positive effects across both business and brand. It therefore should not be dismissed out of hand as a strategy.

“[Brand purpose] is a great new tool for smart brands with the savvy to know how to use it,” he said.

The corporate incentive

Aside from the question of whether purpose drives effectiveness from a consumer perspective, Field’s research does reveal some interesting findings around the impact brand purpose has on corporate relationships. Even weak purpose campaigns were found to deliver better results than the average non-purpose campaign in terms of supplier relationships, employee satisfaction and media coverage.

For example, 35% of strong purpose cases had a positive impact on supplier or distributor relationships, as did 29% of weak purpose cases, compared to 23% of non-purpose cases. Meanwhile, 59% of strong purpose cases and 47% of weak purpose campaigns improved employee satisfaction, next to 23% of non-purpose campaigns.

It’s “quite a compelling argument” for purpose, Shotton says. “There really are nuances. Just because purpose on average tends not to be successful in terms of business metrics, there are other areas where it does seem to be powerful. So if employee satisfaction or supplier relationships is the objective, then there could well be argument for it.”

Your purpose should sit on clear consumer insight. It shouldn’t sit to one side, as a purpose that has been invented in a different bit of the business and then run on top.

Cheryl Calverley, Eve Sleep

Reflecting similar findings, a System1 study of 1,500 B2B ads found that purpose was a lot more likely to lead to high scoring ads in B2B than B2C. CMO Jon Evans, suggests this means people care more about purpose when it’s a company they work for, are investing in, or are doing business with.

“I think purpose is mostly a corporate strategy and occasionally a consumer one,” Evans says. “Every company should have a purpose to do the right thing for their shareholders, employees and society.”

Before joining System1 in 2019, Evans’ CV included stints as CMO at BrewDog, marketing director at Lucozade Ribena Suntory and head of marketing at Britvic. In those roles, purpose was always a “very important” consideration from a business perspective, he says – and occasionally from a brand perspective too.

At Lucozade, he led a relaunch of the sports drinks brand under a new campaign idea called ‘Made 2 Move’, where everything the brand did inspired and helped people to move more amid an obesity crisis in the UK. Not only did this reverse a long-term decline for Lucozade and drive consistent year-on-year growth afterwards, employee satisfaction went up and the campaign got a lot of positive press coverage, Evans claims.

“It is these secondary benefits which are very often behind brands shifting to more purpose-led campaigns,” he says.

Just because purpose on average tends not to be successful in terms of business metrics, there are other areas where it does seem to be powerful.

Richard Shotton, Astroten

Similarly, Eve Sleep’s former CMO and now CEO, Cheryl Calverley, says the mattress brand’s intrinsic purpose to aid better sleep “certainly” helps from an investor point of view. “Partly it makes investors feel good to be part of a business that has a strong purpose, but partly it’s because they can then see the journey for the brand,” she explains.

“If you haven’t got a purpose, it is probably hard to see what the innovation roadmap is, what M&A might look like, where the brand might go next in terms of markets and channels. [Our purpose] frames a growth story much more easily than ‘we sell mattresses’.”

However, Calverley warns against confusing corporate purpose with a brand’s purpose, which she believes the marketing industry is “meshing” too much. While Unilever, for example, has a clear corporate purpose around sustainability, that doesn’t mean all its brands should also be selling on sustainability, she points out.

“I’m not buying Marmite for sustainability credentials, I’m buying it because I love the taste, but also for the lovely stuff around it bringing back memories of family and parents,” she explains. “So the purpose at Marmite probably sits around being an evocative face of childhood and connecting people around that, not sustainability.

“What your business exists for can be different to your brand purpose. It can’t be completely dissident, but it can and should be different.”

Slowing the pendulum

Perhaps then, the challenge with brand purpose is that the debate across the industry has become too polarised. The story behind its impact is seemingly more nuanced than claiming either that all brands must now have a social purpose to win over consumers, or that brand purpose is, as Yum! Brands CMO Ken Muench has said, “disingenuous bullshit”.

For Calverley, a better definition of the term ‘purpose’ is needed. Where is the line drawn between where purpose-led communication is and isn’t core to the brand’s central offering?

For example, Eve Sleep is by nature a wellness brand, she says, which aims to give consumers the key to ‘rise and shine’ with its range of mattresses and sleep products. “That’s why we exist and why we sell the products we do,” she adds

“So we are a purpose-led brand, one could say, because all of our communications will be purpose-led. Because we make money from that purpose.

“We’re not purpose-led because it makes us feel good, or because it pleases shareholders. We’re purpose-led because our core customer mission is an underserved need, and we believe there is revenue in serving underserved needs.”This Much I Learned: Eve’s Cheryl Calverley on her first year as CEO

Internally, the business talks about its “mission”, rather than its “purpose”. “Purpose can be a bit fat and mission is a bit sharper, so that’s what we are here to do,” Calverley says.

“We’ve got five very clear strategic commitments. It’s the heart of our business, but that’s just good brand building. That’s what any good brand should be executing against.”

However, Calverley admits that the pendulum in the brand purpose debate is “swinging too hard”.

“I think what people are struggling with is where a purpose-led campaign is disconnected from a core brand and what a brand does,” she says. “That’s where people are going, I’ve got a real problem with that.”

“Your purpose should sit on your clear consumer insight. It shouldn’t sit to one side, as a purpose that has been invented in a different bit of the business and then run on top.”

Indeed, in Calverley’s view, brand purpose as an idea has arisen as marketing has lost its strategic role in business, with marketing becoming more about communication than a core strategic function. “That has then left a gap, because who in the business is then having a conversation about what consumer needs need to be met and how you are developing your product and brand to get to that?” she asks.

This is where purpose has “reared its head”, she says. “Purpose has arrived as a concept to fill a consumer centric gap in lots of businesses and to get their businesses back to that. Because one thing purpose is is customer centric – it starts with the human being.”

Whether it’s called purpose, brand strategy or consumer insight, having a clear consumer-centric thought at the heart of a business is core to being successful, she adds.

Purpose that works

Agreeing, Evans says purpose can only work when part of a good brand strategy. For Lucozade, its purpose worked because it helped the brand to get more people moving, which led to more sales of the drink.

“It’s important not to dismiss all purpose led work,” he says. “It does sometimes work. [But] if you do purpose then be sure it’s for the right reasons and it’s on a subject your audiences cares about.”

Similarly, Diageo found around seven years ago that it had got the brand purpose of its alcohol brand Bailey’s “wrong”, the company’s global head of beer, Baileys and Smirnoff, Mark Sandys, says. Women didn’t need Baileys to ‘help them shine’.

“We had misdiagnosed the problem – millions of people love the taste of Baileys, they just forget to drink it. We changed our purpose to what the brand is really about – pleasure – and reframed our competition as adult treats (rather than liqueurs),” he explains.

“Our purpose became ‘Baileys is a co-conspirator to pleasure’ and Baileys is now one of our most consistently successful brands.”

Diageo therefore thinks about purpose as being the reason a brand exists, which allows its marketers to talk about what makes a brand distinctive, Sandys says. Sometimes this is close to the product, as with Baileys, and sometimes this can ladder up to a broader idea, such as ‘Johnnie Walker inspires personal progress’.

“At different times during a brand’s lifecycle we might choose to make brand purpose the main message and at other times we might choose to focus on a brand’s roots or quality,” he adds.

Brand owner responsibility

On the brand purpose debate, Sandys notes the conversation often centres on whether a brand has the right to talk about a bigger belief or cause. On one hand, this is a classic marketing effectiveness question, he says – is the work credible and ownable for the brand?

“However there is a different point which can get obscured – not about a brand’s rights, but about brand owners’ responsibilities,” he adds.

“As brand owners we have a responsibility to ensure that we play our part in protecting the future of our planet, reflect in our advertising the diversity of the people around the world who enjoy our products and, in my industry, to promote positive drinking.

“All of these require consumer understanding, strategy and creative brilliance to have an impact with consumers – for example, when we created ‘Guinness Clear’ to give people the confidence to order a glass of water when they’re in the pub. These are not the same as brand purpose but they are critical strategic tasks at which marketers will increasingly need to excel.”

So while on average brand purpose is shown not to be more effective from a consumer perspective than the average non-purpose ad, there are a multitude of other reasons for brands to employ it as a strategy, from corporate benefits and employee engagement, to building a brand strategy.

And as Shotton says: “If brands genuinely believe in benefits beyond profit, well, then they should do it anyway.”