Some 14 per cent of the 828 global marketers polled, who combined represent more than $170bn (£102bn) in marketing spend, said Unilever and P&G were “purpose leaders”.
The FMCG companies were closely followed by Google, with 11 per cent of the vote, and Apple, which scored 10 per cent.
When broken down by region, Unilever was found to be the purpose leader in Europe, Apple in North America, Coca-Cola in Latin America and Danone in Africa and the Middle East and Nestle in Asia-Pacific.
“Purpose” was defined by the study as creating programmes that positively impact communities and having ethical business practices.
Values such as protecting and improving the environment and helping to address global issues scored less highly in the 2014 study (39 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), than the previous year (56 per cent and 52 per cent). The WFA suggests this may be due to marketers becoming “less global and ambitious” and more local and CRM-focused in their articulation of purpose.
The research also found that almost nine out of 10 (88 per cent) of marketers believe purpose will be increasingly important to building brands. But while 71 per cent of marketers believe their brands had a sense of purpose, only two thirds (63 per cent) said they had worked for brands that have been successful in communicating it.
That lack of success may be due to the fact that marketers are still struggling to identify clear metrics to prove that purpose benefits the bottom line. Just 30 per cent think the impact of purpose of share price can be assessed and 36 per cent said this was not possible at all. Just 51 per cent of marketers said purpose-driven activities can impact sales.
The majority of marketers (89 per cent) did agree, however, that purpose needs to involve the entire organisation and have buy-in from from all business functions. About two thirds (68 per cent) of marketers said the CEO should be involved in designing and shaping purpose, while one in two (54 per cent) said corporate communications should be the responsibility of the CMO.
Most marketers polled (75 per cent) agreed shaping purpose should also involve people outside the organisation, including customers, supply chain, NGOs and governments.
Stephen Loerke, WFA managing director, says: “[This study] clearly tells us that there is an emerging realisation that marketers need to put purpose into their marketing, and increasingly so in order to be successful. Secondly, it becomes clear that purpose isn’t necessarily about saving the planet. It doesn’t have to be worthy per se; it can be about taking small and meaningful actions.”
The WFA study chimes with the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, which found consumers are more trusting of businesses that do good work for society. Key business figures assessing the report have said the study shows it is now time for top executives to “step out of their comfort zone” and become “chief engagement officers” in order to set the context for a change in trust levels.