David Brent is a classic comedy character. He’s oblivious to how others see him. Naïve and self-delusional, he likes to think his colleagues find him funny, but his actions and words tend to have the opposite effect.
By trying to be cool, he ends up being very uncool. Just like Cannes Lions and 90% of the brand-purpose waffle that came out of it.
When you think about it, Cannes Lions is the perfect tribute to Brent.
When an industry commentator wrote that "at Cannes brands had moved from conceptual ideas into genuinely purposeful activity for people in the real world" and that it had cemented its relevance with consumers, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Brent had been reborn as an ad executive.
Taking centre stage at the festival was the biggest example of self-delusion in our industry today: brand purpose. Although I think a more accurate description would be "social virtue marketing strategies".
Here is an example of an industry believing it’s "down with the kids" and connecting with regular people.
After all, surveys tell us that brands need to stand for something, take sides and tackle major social issues. And there is the persistent (sometimes almost cultist) belief that, by doing so, brands will see this reflected in their sales figures.
As many of us know but so regularly ignore, attitudes and behaviour are often poles apart.
If social virtue was so important, why do the likes of Amazon and Facebook continue to thrive? Although we really don’t want it to be so, there is no credible evidence that social virtue strategies drive sales.
The dangers of 'social virtue' marketing
So this begs the question: why do so many in our industry continue to drink the Kool-Aid? Let me put forward an explanation.
"Social virtue" marketing strategies are highly seductive to us on a personal level.
In previous generations, we’d be signalling our social standing by wearing the latest Nikes or driving a BMW. But this is no longer good enough for people like us – cultural capital is where it’s at these days.
Author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett sums it up best when she writes that the "aspirational class" (of which we are a part) seek to signal their social position via shared knowledge and values.
What better way to virtue signal than to project our own values in the work we produce and the products we buy?
Plain toothpaste isn’t enough – it needs an added dash of saving the world!
Now this wouldn’t be a problem if everyone was like us. But they’re not. We’re an elite bunch and most mainstream audiences remain motivated by materialism.
Let’s be honest with ourselves – "social virtue" marketing strategies are not grounded in the needs of the mainstream; it’s all based on the needs of people working in our industry. So these types of strategies aren’t going anywhere until the next fad comes along.
But to offer some food for thought – if you do want your brand to take a side or promote a cause, don’t make the lazy assumption that mainstream audiences feel as strongly about the subject as you do.
The chances are they probably don’t. And here’s why.
In our new study, The Empathy Delusion, Reach Solutions undertook the first-ever large-scale examination of the UK’s moral foundations.
Using a framework developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the results show that people in our industry have fundamentally different "moral foundations", and unconscious intuitions about what is right and wrong, compared with mainstream audiences.
If we must insist that brands take a side and use social virtue in their marketing and advertising, we all need to be much more aware of our own moral agendas.
There also needs to be much greater scrutiny of our interpretation of social virtue. Using virtue to stand out is of little value if all it means is projecting our values on to others.
Marketing strategies driven by narrow moral foundations only serves to widen the cultural gap between brands and the people they seek to engage.
So, consider this: perhaps the most relevant brands aren’t those banging on about how relevant they are.
I think it’s time for a more oblique approach. There’s a wealth of evidence proving the environment and context in which people interact with brands is absolutely critical.
People are cognitive misers. In the real world, they simply couldn’t give a monkey’s about what a brand thinks or believes. But the science shows that people do unconsciously "incorporate brands into the self".
Brands can build relevance, identification and shared values implicitly by being associated with the things, and being found in the places, that people do care about.
We need to stop our over-reliance on direct strategies like social virtue – they are likely to be insufficient because they exclude too many people.
A broadly targeted and diverse mass-media strategy offers a powerful, indirect way of building a truly plural brand with broad cultural relevance.
It might even prevent us from indulging in our lame dad tendencies.
Andrew Tenzer is director of group insight at Reach, whose new study, The Empathy Delusion, is published this week