Dentsu creative director: Ill-conceived purpose campaigns are ruining the industry

Consumers are calling bullshit on cause-based work that isn't authentic, and so should award jurors, according to Dentsu's Toshihiko Tanabe.

Tanabe: 'Purpose has to be deeply rooted in a brand'
Tanabe: 'Purpose has to be deeply rooted in a brand'

Brands are being told that they need to have more purpose – they can’t form a relationship with consumers without a cause. Surveys of consumers back this up and, as a juror at Cannes Lions, Dentsu creative director Toshihiko Tanabe saw 16 of 21 Grand Prix awards given out to cause-related campaigns.

We all want to do meaningful work and be successful in our jobs, but it’s getting out of hand, he told a packed crowd at the Spikes Asia 2019 Inspiration stage.

'What the hell does this have to do with the brief that we’re working on?'

Tanabe spoke of an actual meeting he had at Dentsu in Tokyo two weeks ago, along with with two writers, an art director, the executive creative director and a digital executive. The ideas pitched in the meeting were to:

  • Save the rainforest
  • Fight Alzheimer’s disease
  • Bring people from isolated regions of Japan into the modern economy

"In short, they were trying to save the world," Tanabe said. But the brief was not from an NGO or even a client such as National Geographic. "The brief that we were working on that day was to introduce a brand new flavour – macaroni and cheese – for the crisp brand we were working on."

While Tanabe was too polite to shame specific brands, he noted that it is this kind of forced brand purpose that has led to such ill-thought-out campaigns as a beer brand offering a women’s discount to make up for the gender pay gap and a soft-drinks company offering a $1 donation to a diabetes foundation from every mega-jug of soda sold.

Calling BS

The problem, Tanabe said, is that consumers can detect bullshit really easily and superficial campaigns are at best ignored and at worst actively harmful to brands.

But even when causes are legitimate, unless they’re authentically rooted in the brand and remain unchanged from marketer to marketer, people continue to ask why it is engaged with this cause when it wasn't doing anything about it for the past few years. According to Tanabe, consumers say: "Now you say this is important to us and our brand. Since when do you give a crap about this?"

"Most of the time, most campaigns have nothing to do with what the brand stands for deep down," he added. "It’s going to cost us with the faith or the trust we’ve built over the years with the client who says: ‘We’ve tried a purpose campaign. It didn’t work.'"

Moreover, he argued, only 12% of people could correctly match brands with their causes. Not enough of them have the necessary consistency in what they stand for.

Is your cause at the root of your brand?

But Tanabe pointed to two great purpose campaigns, Volvo’s EVA. campaign, which shared data to help other carmakers protect women in crashes, and Ikea’s "ThisAbles", which developed 3D-printable modifications to its furniture to make it more friendly for disabled customers. These campaigns worked, he argued, because Volvo has been known for safety innovations since the 1950s and Ikea in its very nature stands for the democratisation of functional home furnishings.

"Purpose has to be deeply rooted in a brand," Tanabe explained, and went to share the beginnings of what is to be a multi-year campaign by Toyota to reflect its transformation from car company to mobility business.

A purpose campaign is not something you borrow, but apply for years, Tanabe said, before giving a parting warning to the jurors at Spikes: "I just trust that the jury is wise enough, when they see bullshit in purpose campaigns, to call it out."

A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific

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