Criticism of brand purpose is ‘naïve and unjustified’, claims Peter Field

In new research by the effectiveness expert, well-executed brand purpose cases are found to drive a higher number of large business and brand effects than cases without purpose.

Effectiveness expert and consultant Peter Field has called for an end to the “vitriolic” criticism piled on brand purpose by some industry commentators and practitioners, having found through new research that well-executed purpose campaigns deliver superior effectiveness on a number of key business measures.

“There is an awful lot of vitriolic criticism heaped on brand purpose, and some of it is naïve and not entirely justified,” Field tells Marketing Week ahead of the IPA Effworks 2021 Conference.

Admittedly, some criticism is justified, he concedes. “An awful lot of brand purpose advertising doesn’t have much, if any, consumer effectiveness to talk about.

“But that’s the naivety,” he adds. “Clearly there are other factors driving brand purpose advertising, such as investors and regulators demanding businesses do something.

“[Businesses] don’t just want to do something, they want to be seen to be doing something. As a marketer you would have to be rather dense not to take that on.”

Field says he is therefore looking for the “win-win”, which gives companies the toolkit to meet government, investor or regulator requirements on issues such as sustainability, but can also deliver positive effects on the consumer relationship.

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

Peter Field

Studying the IPA Effectiveness Awards Databank, Field compared and contrasted 47 brand purpose cases with 333 non-purpose cases over the same period.

Field defines ‘brand purpose’ as “a commitment articulated by a commercial brand or its parent company to goals other than improved profits or products, involving contribution towards one or more positive social impacts”. Those positive impacts might take place in the fields of health, the environment, human development, sustainable business practices or other similar areas.

Initially, the findings look bad for brand purpose advocates. 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.

Credit: IPA/Peter Field

However, sharp differences emerge when comparing strongly executed brand purpose cases to weakly executed ones. Field acknowledges that it may be seen as an “analytical trick” to pull out the top performers from the bottom performers when drawing conclusions from data, “but those two groups are doing things really quite differently”.

Some 57% of brand purpose cases were deemed to have performed strongly. Among those, the number of very large business effects averages at 2.1, well above the 1.6 benchmark for non-purpose cases. On the other hand, for weak cases of brand purpose that figure drops to just 0.1.

Half of strong purpose cases achieved very large customer acquisition effects, while only 30% of non-purpose cases managed the same. Again, among unsuccessful purpose cases that figure drops dramatically to just 5%.

Similarly, 41% of strong purpose cases drove very large market share growth, compared to 26% for non-purpose cases and 0% among weak purpose cases.

Strong purpose cases also caused very large brand effects, with an average of 3 – an “exceptionally strong” performance, according to the study. Non-purpose cases drove 1.9 very large brand effects, while poor purpose cases averaged just 1.

Within these brand effects, metrics associated with brand appeal, trust, commitment and fame performed particularly well in cases of well-executed brand purpose. More than a third (35%) of cases built brand trust, while 43% built commitment and 39% built fame (see chart above).

It’s a similar story across metrics associated with distinctiveness. Some 70% of strong purpose cases built differentiation, as 61% built image and 26% built awareness.

Credit: IPA/Peter Field

However, Field also identified areas in which a successful brand purpose campaign can not only drive positive brand performance, but “quite powerful” B2B and collateral benefits.

For example, 35% of strong purpose cases had a positive impact on supplier or distributor relationships (compared to 23% for non-purpose cases and 29% for weak purpose cases), while 18% had a positive impact on investor relations or awareness (compared to 9% for non-purpose and 6% for weak cases).

“I’d be pretty confident in saying the benefits this analysis has shown to investor relations is only likely to have grown in recent years,” Field adds.

Meanwhile, 59% of strong purpose cases improved employee satisfaction (compared to 23% of non-purpose campaigns and 47% of weak purpose campaigns), while 82% increased media coverage (which remained the same for weak purpose cases, but dropped to 56% among non-purpose cases).

A lot of people are overlooking [the value of purpose] because there’s an awful lot of completely unconnected and irrelevant purpose out there that poisons the well.

Peter Field

“It is quite clear that what a lot of critics have said is true,” Field admits. “If you are seen to be non-credible, or even hypocritical, and if your brand purpose in no way connects with the business of your brand, it isn’t going to stick.”

However, “the great thing about brand purpose” is that when it’s done well, it introduces new dimensions to a category so a brand can differentiate itself in ways it couldn’t before, he explains.

“When you do that it does have some quite unique abilities to get people to reassess brands and revitalise brands, which would be quite tough to do without that message,” Field adds.  “[Brand purpose] is a great new tool for smart brands with the savvy to know how to use it.”

How to get purpose right

Having analysed the performance of 47 brand purpose cases, Field has identified four key areas where better execution of brand purpose can lead to strong effectiveness.

“If you ignore [these four key observations], you may well end up doing more harm than good,” he says.

The first is physical availability: strong cases work closely with distributors that are also aligned to the purpose, and develop bespoke in-store presence. Field points to Skittle’s ‘Give the Rainbow’ campaign, in which the brand replaced all of its products with all-grey packets in Tesco to celebrate LGBTQ+ pride.

Strong purpose cases also align the brand’s purpose to the virtues or benefits of the product itself and ensure this is a credible link, Field says, as Waitrose effectively did when it launched its farming partnership. The grocer now executes a number of agricultural-focused initiatives, which it connects back to the quality of its product.

Additionally, strong brand purpose cases will use purpose to strengthen the brand’s association with category entry points, as in the case of Ella’s Kitchen. The children’s food brand has made a major push into helping parents wean their babies and get them onto solid food, which builds “brownie points” among those parents when they continue looking for food for their young children as they get older.

And finally, all strong purpose cases will align their brand’s purpose to popular issues among the target market. Field cites gravy brand Bisto as an example, with its mission to bring separated families, friends and loved ones together around food.

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“These [brands] are all lovely examples of where you find that link between what the brand is and does, and the issue. It’s genuine and credible, these are real initiatives they’re doing and they’re putting real skin in the game,” Field explains.

“It’s not rocket science. I’m not claiming these are earth shattering insights, because with hindsight they’re obvious,” he adds.

“But they are important. A lot of people are overlooking them because there’s an awful lot of completely unconnected and irrelevant purpose out there that poisons the well.”