Mark Ritson: Stop propping up brand purpose with contrived data and hypocrisy

Channel 4’s research claiming consumers want purpose-driven ads is the latest flimsy attempt to bolster a morally bankrupt concept that simply covers over corporate indiscretions.

Another week, another bit of patchy methodological puffery making the case for brand purpose. This week’s fluff came from Channel 4 and reinforced the fact that our marketing knowledge base is increasingly constructed from undercooked, overstated research that is all about the headline and not about the rigour. The subsequent press release proclaimed that “Channel 4 finds purpose-driven ads resonate most with young viewers” but its research showed no such thing.

Asking for ‘system two’ answers to questions in market research can be a fruitful and valid approach. You ask consumers how they rate a brand on a particular attribute using a five-point Likert scale or solicit satisfaction levels with simple scalar questions.

Asking people whether they think brands should raise awareness about important issues is a valid question, which generates a valid response. In this case 57% of young people believe brands should use their advertising to raise awareness about social or ethical issues. The fact that 43% of young people don’t think this is also an interesting discovery. So too is the finding that 49% of the sample feel Channel 4 is the strongest champion of social issues among the main TV channels. All valid stuff.

But where these self-reported questions fail miserably is when they ask respondents to attribute importance or causation to their attitudes and behaviour. The survey claims, for example, that 60% of young people notice ads more if they deal with important issues. While that result was derived from a representative sample and was answered legitimately by respondents it is a highly questionable conclusion. How would anyone possibly know this?

READ MORE: Russell Parsons – Stop mistaking purpose for differentiation

Similarly, the findings that 56% of young people equate ethical products with better quality or that 56% are also willing to pay more for ethical products is equally invalid. They might think they think that, but that’s not necessarily what actually happens. Or happens all the time.

Unconvincing data

What the Channel 4 survey reveals is that young people think that brands with ethical societal purpose should be noticed more and that, in theory, they would pay more for ethical products. But this is world away from actually being the case. To show that ethical brands do get noticed more you would need to create a proper replicable scale for social purpose, ask consumers to complete it, then monitor their proven recall scores for all the ads they have been exposed to over a prescribed period of time and correlate the degree of inferred purpose with level of brand recall.

Even then you would have to control for reverse causality, in which higher levels of recalled ads are imbued with higher levels of post-hoc purpose by the sample in question. And you would have to control for the alternative effects of better or worse creative and media budgets.

And if you really want to show that brand purpose drives preference and reduces price sensitivity, you cannot simply ask consumers in an abstract manner whether this is the case. You would have to put consumers into experimental or quasi-experimental conditions and look at the correlation coefficients between the degree of perceived social purpose, consideration, preference, price sensitivity and the purchase behaviour of consumers.

Do customers want purpose-filled brands? Sometimes. In some categories. Depending on how it is done. A lot of the time they don’t give a fuck. And usually most segments will not pay more.

I guess what I am saying is that if you want to make big, discipline-altering claims like “purpose-filled ads resonate more with young people” or “most young people are willing to pay more for ethical products” you really need to have the empirical and methodological heft to pull this off, and not an undergraduate-level questionnaire with a few cross-tabulations.

But then again this is brand purpose – the current concept du jour of every trendy, helium-filled marketer in the country. You can’t scroll through LinkedIn for more than a minute without encountering some well-meaning numpty with an iPhone trying to educate you about the power of purpose from the comfort of what appears to be their downstairs toilet. We are a fickle bunch in this industry and we jump from gilded lily to gilded lily in an eternal search for greater fulfilment, brand nirvana and TNBTIM – the next big thing in marketing.

A sure sign of how fleeting and pathetic most of this thinking is can be taken from the binary, bipolar nature of the concepts that occupy marketers. Your average marketer braves it to the end of How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp and spends the next month declaring targeting, differentiation and brand loyalty to be dead as a doorknob.

A week later they watch a half-buttoned Simon Sinek wank on about ‘why’ being more important than ‘what’ and they are off into the rainbow world of brand purpose. The complex, less exciting implication that both perspectives might be a little bit correct, a little bit wrong and highly dependent on the category, strategy and brand is lost completely.

That, by the way, is the right approach if you are really interested in applying brand purpose correctly rather than just looking trendy. Despite attempts by many to force the purpose agenda on all brands and all marketers in every target segment, it represents an occasionally vital, often irrelevant, usually oversold approach to brand positioning.

READ MORE: Patagonia on why brands ‘can’t reverse into purpose’ through marketing

Do customers want purpose-filled brands? Sometimes. In some categories. Depending on how it is done. A lot of the time they don’t give a fuck. And usually most segments will not pay more for the purpose-filled privilege even if they are theoretically in favour of it.

That conclusion should not surprise any marketer – there are so many exceptions to the marketing rule book that the book itself would appear to be pointless. Yet even questioning the validity of brand purpose sends some senior marketers into paroxysms of outrage. It is a movement, an orthodoxy, after all. It must be used in all cases. When marketers get up on stages and tell you that brand purpose should be used all the time and always works you know something is amiss.

Purpose is really positioning

The application of brand purpose does not invalidate the existing, long held rules of brand positioning. It does not represent an addition to positioning strategy either. If you want to get brand purpose to work you must accept that it will need to pass the three traditional, very tricky tests of brand positioning.

First, I want to position on what the customer wants rather than what I can do well or differently from others. I also want to position on something I can immediately deliver. Finally, I want to be able to deliver what customers want in a way that is different or distinctive or superior or simply better than my competitors.

This old model – the ‘three Cs’ of customer, company and competition – remains the acid test of positioning. I want a position that will be what my target customer wants, and which my company can deliver better or differently or more distinctively than my competitors. It’s not that the three Cs dispel the need for brand purpose but they do provide a stern, rigorous test of whether purpose provides the strategic muster to get the branding job done.

There are companies that have used brand purpose to great effect. I’d put Unilever at the very top of that very short list, for example.

READ MORE: Unilever CEO – Brands are stupid not to be forerunners on purpose

But I think many of these other purpose-driven brands are simply jumping on the trendy TNBTIM brand wagon when they would be better off adopting a less purposeful and more effective approach to brand positioning. There is an opportunity cost to wanking on about transgender rights or police brutality. These things will not harm your brand and might do you a sliver of good. But for every ad where you talk about female empowerment there is another ad you cannot use to talk about being stylish and sophisticated.

Note here that I am not arguing against equality and respect for transgender people, or justifying police brutality. I am questioning the strategic soundness of wasting your marketing dollars focusing on it. More specifically, I think most attempts at brand purpose fail because they do not pass the three Cs test.

I do not dispute your right to reduce your tax bill to a tiny fraction of your profits. But don’t pair it with brand purpose bullshit and pretend any of this is genuine or real.

Purpose often – usually, even – fails the customer test. While research from companies like Channel 4 attempts to argue that customers want brand purpose, it reaches this conclusion in an empirically juvenile fashion. I do not know many people who want social irresponsibility or animal testing or environmental carelessness. But do consumers go out of their way to seek out and pay more for those purposeful brands that campaign against them? For most customers, in most categories, most of the time, the answer is invariably no.

Customers often want more than simple function from their brands. Occasionally they seek emotional benefits and the wise marketer, where possible, positions their brand accordingly on those benefits. But too often purpose jumps the shark and travels up past functional benefits, zooms past emotional attractions and enters the “twatosphere”, as Andy Whitlock, strategy director of The Human Half recently noted with great aplomb.

Similarly, purpose usually fails the competitor test. In the rush to embrace social causes, most brands lose their heritage and authenticity in the process. For my classes on positioning I like to put up the latest tranche of purpose statements from big brands and then ask my MBA students to match the statements to the brands behind them. They invariably fail because all these statements are extraordinarily similar.

Do you want to ‘inspire moments of optimism’ or ‘make today great’ or ‘get more out of today’ or ‘inspire the human spirit’ or ‘make everyday life better’ or ‘create a more positive future’? So much for differentiation if you are Coke, Kellogg’s, Barclaycard, Ikea, Starbucks or Futurebrand.

The situation has become so clichéd that brands are finally starting to build equity by taking the mickey out of the purpose jungle all around them. The ‘Refreshingly Honest’ campaign from Oasis was a brilliant attempt to stand apart from the worthy, generic fumblings of its competitors by calling bullshit on the whole sorry situation.

They hypocrisy of ‘purpose-driven’ brands

And purpose usually fails the company test too. Despite the claims that we live in the age of brand purpose it is quite clear that corporate ethics and the general fuckery of big business, politics and the 1% of the population that own everything has never been worse.

That state of decay is mirrored in many of these ‘purpose-driven’ brands and their absolute hypocrisy. Lush tells us its ethical purpose forces it to attack the British police force while underpaying its Australian employees by millions.

Starbucks tells us its brand purpose is to build community, while doing everything it can to minimise its tax payments.

State Street creates the ‘Fearless Girl’ sculpture and tells us its mission is to get more diversity into corporate executive teams, while settling a US government claim that it pays female employees and people of colour less than white males.

Google tells us it has a mission to share the world’s information but won’t reveal its own revenue or profit figures at a country level.

Cadbury adopts a new purpose-filled position to “shine a light on the kindness and generosity that we see in society” – and manages to pay zero corporation tax, for the sixth consecutive year, on profits of £103m. Kindness and generosity personified.

To all these brands I say: go fuck yourself. I do not dispute your right to reduce your tax bill to a tiny fraction of your profits. But don’t pair it with brand purpose bullshit and pretend any of this is genuine or real. It’s a smokescreen and we all know it.

Trump has taught everyone that the more they catch you doing something, the more you should claim to be doing exactly the opposite. That’s the real role of purpose for most big corporations: a giant, magical distraction that allows you to pull the fat, fiscal rabbit from the hat while everyone is looking at your beautiful brand purpose standing next to you.

Purpose has a place for a tiny number of brands that have the customers, the corporate authenticity and the categories to make it work. But for all the rest the subject, like the Channel 4 research on the topic, is almost entirely without merit; we could even say, without purpose.



There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Luke Chess 26 Jul 2018

    I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a then-senior marketer for a major bank who, some years previous, had been given research showing an overwhelmingly positive reception for the idea of donating one’s credit card reward points to charity. So much so, the bank created a special product that did just that. And sold a total of 8 of them over the next 12 months before abandoning it. Yes, just 8.

  2. Anna Milchem 26 Jul 2018

    Where did C4 manage to find all these young people that watch TV? I thought TV was dead?

  3. Pete Austin 26 Jul 2018

    Great article. In general the world is too complicated for issue-driven marketing. This is not only about hypocrisy, as ably described in the article, but about conflicting outcomes. If you recycle more plastic instead of incinerating it, some of this “recycled” plastic ends up in third-world rivers. If you help large wild animals, rural people may get pushed off their land. Fighting cancer means more animal vivisection. Overseas charity workers save lives but may abuse local young women. Hospices provide care but have “no intravenous fluids’ policies which hasten death. Young people may take good vs bad at face value, but there are significant risks for brands who pretend they can be advocates for “good”.

  4. Paul Woolf 26 Jul 2018

    Thank you for saying this in such a thoughtful, compelling fashion. I’m forever reminded that what people say in surveys (like “I’d never vote for Trump’ or ‘I’d pay more for brand x if it did y’) doesn’t always come through in their behaviours. And while a purpose led approach like US retailer REI works fine as an intrinsic part of their branding and positioning, it’s ludicrous that every Tom, Dick and Harry brand has decided they want to follow suit. Like the commentator talking about charity credit cards, my experience of charitable promotions and communications is mixed. Sometimes, such as when Bovril donated to Lions Clubs in the 1990s for Bonfire Night and sampled thousands at a fraction of the price of normal sampling methods (ISP Award winner), they work spectacularly well. Yet more often, they have a nice feelgood factor on a concept board and get the nod of approval, without much grounding in commercial or behavioural reality.

  5. Brad Hill 26 Jul 2018

    It’s a shame we always focus on the brand purposes of companies that act unethically like Starbucks and Google. We end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, forgetting that there are some brands out there, Patagonia being a great example, who have a genuine purpose that they consistently deliver on and reap the benefits as a result. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of brands abuse brand purpose or are simply jumping on the bandwagon but when a brand purpose is created for the right reasons and genuinely lived throughout the company then it can be incredibly powerful.

  6. Tadas R. 26 Jul 2018

    The rule that 90% of advertising is terrible can be applied to brand purpose as well. Perhaps there are only 10% that get it right, like Patagonia or Unilever.
    Good article though. Thank you.

  7. Al King 27 Jul 2018

    Thank you.

  8. Rob Taylor 30 Jul 2018

    This is all great and true. But Mark never acknowledges the broad possibility that employees, rather than customers, are really the intended audience for corporate brand purposes.

    It’s hard to go to work every day knowing that all you’re going to be doing is pouring coffee after coffee, or fetching yet another flat-pack Doorsalfinn from the warehouse. Especially when the news comes on and you discover your employer is behaving as egregiously as the ones detailed above.

    But if you go to work and think you’re making a positive difference to someone, making the world incrementally better, coffee by coffee, it might just help to drive you to work happier, harder and – just maybe – for a little bit less money.

    If as an employer you have a brand purpose, however bullshitty it may be, it’s certainly going to make you more attractive to prospective employees than some local independent tax-paying, no-brand, no-purpose coffee shop or flat-pack furniture vendor. And those years of toil in a coffee shop will look better on your CV when you can say you spent your days “inspiring the human spirit” rather than pouring hot brown stuff into cups.

    When you view all ads containing brand purpose as staff propaganda rather than actual commercial promotions, their existence makes more sense. (Although their ubiquity does not.)

    Meanwhile, as Mark has given us the material to work with, I present to you the ultimate brand purpose:

    “Get more out of life by making today great and inspiring moments of optimism in the human spirit, making everyday life better and creating a more positive future for us all.”

    Coming soon to a Linkedin profile near you.

  9. Mark Cichon 31 Jul 2018

    The golden rule is always look at what they do, rather than what they say. Behaviour always trumps words.

  10. Christof Steidle 1 Aug 2018

    Thank you Mark for your constant effort to make us think better.
    Guess my surprise as I read the MW-newsletter today – promoting this survey :-/
    Prophet in his own country…?

  11. Mathieu Manson 1 Aug 2018

    Hi Mark, great article as always.
    Geniune question for you: you often criticize (or disagree with) the Ehrenberg-Bass and Byron Sharp principles or recommendations. Do you have any case studies where those principles don’t apply, e.g. a category where different customer segment buy different brands, or where a brand won through driving loyalty rather than recruitmnet?
    It’s not a challenge — I am a fan and try to read most of your columns — but a geniune question as I have read, re read and studied the Ehrenberg-Bass principles and have to say the data is compelling and hard to argue with so would like to see counter-examples.

  12. Vibe Bangsgaard 6 Aug 2018

    There’s no arguing that manipulation and hypocrisy will lead to anything but, well exactly that, I do believe there is a place for brand purpose to shape and guide commitment. Something it seems a lot of companies struggle with.

    At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at the begging of the year, Deloitte released a survey of more than 1,500 C-level executives in 19 countries. Ahead of the release Punit Renjen from Deloitte posted an article in Forbes BrandVoice, in which he writes that business leaders “feel hopeful for the future yet powerless to help shape it”. He continues: “Business in general has come a long way from the “I gave at the office” days of corporate citizenship. But clearly many have not embraced the full extent of their own capacity – and responsibility – to deliver meaningful social impact. So how to bridge that disconnect? I believe it has to start with a change in mindset. Specifically, the understanding that, by their very nature, businesses have the entrepreneurial spirit, operational prowess, and deep bench of talent to help change the world.”

    I do believe all businesses have the power to transform lives and, in their own little way, rock the world. Defining an authentic, meaningful and engaging purpose to light their way, is surely a good place to start, is it not?

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