The old purpose vanguard needs new ideas
Brand purpose needs to adapt and change. Most campaigns and initiatives are generic and superficial. Creativity, storytelling and being helpful is what’s needed.
Winning at purpose is like a child trying to catch a pigeon. When you think you almost have it, the pigeon jumps a foot forward and looks dumbfounded at you.
In the early nineties, United Colors of Benetton was trailblazing a new way of advertising fashion to young people globally with its provocative campaigns, such as the white baby breastfeeding from a black mother. The brand lost out to faster moving brands and didn’t succeed in reinventing its messaging as the diversity agenda moved to the mainstream.
As climate change awareness grew, other fast-fashion brands such as H&M quickly usurped it with environmentally conscious collections and initiatives. Today, Benetton is a shadow of its former values-driven self. It even still operates in Russia, according to research from Yale University.
It’s dangerous to rest on your purpose laurels. Ben & Jerry’s is the Al Gore of the ice cream market: an early and vocal advocate for change. Ben & Jerry’s resounding mission is to create “the best possible ice cream in the nicest possible way”. But nice and best is not a static. As more organic-community-oriented-locally-owned-direct-trade-vegan and whatever-else-do-good-words-we-can-add ice cream brands are popping up on every street corner, can Ben & Jerry’s fight off competition? You can choose locally sourced, high-quality fresh ice cream or one owned by a multi-national.
No doubt historically Ben & Jerry’s has owned the value-driven ice cream space thanks to its vocal advocacy on climate and diversity issues, but as the FMCG market becomes increasingly flooded with similar statements, Ben & Jerry’s risk drowning in a sea of sameness. Ben & Jerry’s campaigns lack the creative punch and ingenuity that other Unilever brands like Dove have mastered. Recent years seem like a marketing playbook on repeat.
Creativity is key in a cluttered purpose market
In an increasingly competitive market, it’s getting more difficult to cut through with a value-based approach. Creativity is essential for success. A study by Goodvertising and GfK found advertising that puts people as agents of change rather than touting your brand’s achievements is better at cutting through the noise.
One telling contrast can be seen in two of the spots analysed in the study – Dove’s ‘Reverse Selfie’ and Chipotle’s ‘Can a Burrito Change the World?’. Chipotle spoke about its commitment to farming, whereas Dove encouraged young girls to adopt different digital behaviours. Dove scored significantly higher (+10%) on actions such as: “Inspires me to be part of the change.” Or triggers (+5%) such as: “I want to learn more about the brand or the product”. Purpose talk is cheap, in conclusion.
Topics such as diversity and climate have become talking points for brands. It’s no wonder people are growing tired and increasingly sceptical towards many purpose efforts, often seen as cheap marketing tactics. Unlike the albatrosses on Midway Island, I’m not suffocating in the oceans’ plastic, but in the deluge of commercials about ocean plastic.
There’s a genuine lack of education and understanding of complex sustainability issues, instead a plethora of introductions to climate change seemingly designed for kindergarten. Find the David Attenborough within you and suddenly an ant can be a story of life and death.
For example, French supermarket giant Carrefour prompted conversation and accelerated laws protecting biodiversity with its campaign ‘Black Supermarket’, which highlighted a law prohibiting the sale of the majority of the fruit and vegetables grown.
From naval-gazing preacher to life coach
Yet, creativity alone is not the answer. In an evolving post-purpose market, values or actions are not enough. It’s a continuous push to help people live better lives. Think about it. With all these good-intended promises from brands, what brand has in fact succeeded to create positive change in your life?
If brands want to play a meaningful role, it begins with a stringent focus on positive transformation. Who can you help us become? There are brands that, rather than putting on the hero’s cape, have turned people into the heroes of the narrative: helping us discover a better version of ourselves.
Most brands end up jumping on whatever their social listening tell them people care about.
Purpose vanguard brands like Corona and Dove have stayed relevant through two decades by helping us discover the value of our oceans and beaches, or by constantly challenging ideals of beauty. They have been consistent over more than a decade, yet have evolved creativity and continued to offer fresh insight. Most brands end up jumping on whatever their social listening tell them people care about.
There are three key takeaways if you want to stay relevant in the purpose space. Firstly, understand purpose is not a destination. You need to look to people’s dreams, fears and aspirations. Secondly, take inspiration from ‘Find David Attenborough’ and tell great stories. Lastly, don’t focus on your why and values, but who you can help people become.
If you or your brand focus on people’s challenges, aspirations or dreams, you will stay relevant rather than being stuck with values that at one time seemed progressive, but now feel out of step with the times.
As the market becomes more competitive, there is no space for loud purpose-parrots. We need brands that can keep moving forward with customers as they chase a better version of themselves.
Thomas Kolster is the author of The Hero Trap and founder of the Goodvertising consultancy.