The 2022 Agenda: It’s time for purpose 2.0

As we look ahead to 2022, Marketing Week has identified the key opportunities and challenges that will shape marketers’ roles. We are flagging what we think you should be spending your time and money on – and why, but equally it is a commitment from us to focus on these topics next year.

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Purpose has remained a divisive topic in marketing this year and that does not seem to be changing any time soon. While some believe ‘purpose’ is nothing but a gimmick enabling lazy marketers to push brands that are a hard sell, others say when done right it can enhance all aspects of the brand and ultimately drive growth.

The purpose debate reached new heights this year when effectiveness expert and consultant Peter Field unveiled new research, which found well-executed brand purpose campaigns can drive above average business effects for brands compared to non-purpose cases.

At the time Field noted there had been an “awful lot of vitriolic criticism” of purpose in marketing that is not entirely justified.

Criticism then headed Field’s way, with Professor Byron Sharp, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, and Richard Shotton, founder of behavioural science consultancy Astroten, all branding the research flawed.

Critics dismissed the credibility of the research as it compares “strong” purpose campaigns with both weak and strong non-purpose campaigns combined.

In response to the criticism, Field told Marketing Week: “It was perhaps inevitable that any study that dared to question the vocal criticism of brand purpose would provoke a hysterical response: positions had already been publicly stated and minds already made up. So I was expecting it and indeed predicted it – but what I wasn’t expecting was that some responses would be delivered before the presentation had even been made or the full findings revealed. But, clearly, for many people, this is an emotional issue, not a rational one.”

FMCG giant Unilever is a long-time advocate of purpose and recently highlighted how having purpose at its core has helped it attract great talent.

It also puts the success of brands such as Lifebuoy – €1bn brand and the “third most consumed brand in the world” – according to Unilever, squarely on the fact it is rooted in purpose.

The key to successfully augmenting purpose, to Unilever at least, is to have it right at the core of an organisation with everyone from the C-suite down completely onboard.

Purpose should also be about more than a box-ticking exercise or a chance to talk to consumers about the causes a brand supports or its stand on societal issues. It should be about the role a brand plays in people’s lives and why that matters. NatWest illustrated that earlier this year with the launch of its ‘Tomorrow Begins Today’ campaign, through which it aims to help customers can take control of their finances.

With arguments for and against, it’s likely the purpose debate will become even more polarised in 2022.