Andy Nairn
Andy Nairn
A view from Andy Nairn

The power and pitfalls of purpose

Seven tips to get brand purpose right.

"Brand purpose" is probably our industry’s most polarising issue right now. Devotees position it as the most effective weapon in any marketer’s armoury. Detractors respond that it’s the enthusiasts who are the weapons and that their zealotry is doing untold damage to the industry. 

As ever, the truth is somewhere in-between. The IPA Effectiveness Awards provide plenty of evidence that purpose-driven marketing can be very successful for some organisations (eg Waitrose, Nationwide and Co-op). But, equally, the trade press is awash with examples of good intentions gone wrong (eg Pepsi, Mastercard and Lush).

Anyway, given the debate shows no sign of going away, and also how often these briefs now come up, I thought I’d capture a few practical thoughts on the opportunities and pitfalls in this area. As with all good lists, I reckon there are seven secrets to getting it right, so here goes.

1 Be true

This one should go without saying, but most brands seem to fall at this first hurdle. Purpose really only works where it reflects the actual culture and actions of an organisation. If you’re just cooking it up in the marketing department, it’s almost certainly doomed to failure. I mean, you might win at Cannes, but the truth will soon catch up with you and will be extremely unforgiving (as was shown by the backlash against State Street, when it was discovered that the company behind Fearless Girl was paying some women less than men). 

2 Be humble

Assuming that your company is indeed driven by a genuine sense of purpose, does anybody in the outside world care? This requires a degree of self-awareness and humility that, again, many organisations seem to lack. While it’s tempting to claim that your salty snack brand is solving world peace, consumers may find this a stretch at best, offensive at worst and irrelevant either way. Before you ladder up, it’s probably wise to calm down a bit.

3 Be specific

OK, so you’re genuinely purpose-driven and ordinary people give a shit. Congratulations. Now, you need to reward their interest with some kind of evidence. Not a manifesto outlining some vague set of beliefs. Not a pledge, either, about all the good stuff you intend to do in the future. No, you need some tangible proof that you’re putting your money where your mouth is, right now. Not always easy, is it?

4 Be surprising  

Importantly, any evidence you offer should go beyond the norm. After all, the usual imperative to say something unexpected and arresting doesn’t disappear. Again, many purpose-driven campaigns fail at this stage as they cite hygiene factors that fail to impress. A classic example of this would be a recent NatWest initiative that trumpeted a loose pledge to be less patronising to women. "Gee, thanks guys," half the world’s population replied. 

5 Be distinctive

Why is it that so much purpose-driven advertising adopts the same tone (mawkish, sentimental, pseudo-inspirational) and even executional tropes (social experiments, vox-pop vignettes, identikit hashtags). It’s almost as if brands are so desperate to chime in on the big issues that they forget to stand out. Whether you head to the Trash Isles, give your rainbow away or enlist a choir of vulvas, you really do need to "dream crazy" to cut through the clutter.

6 Be committed

There are a lot of one-offs in this space. Cynical initiatives that feel disconnected from the wider marketing effort. Tactical stunts that are designed to raise short-term attention, rather than deliver long-term results. But if your organisation is genuinely driven by purpose (see point one), it should be baked into everything you do and committed to over the long term. If it feels bolted on, ephemeral or opportunistic, people will see right through it.

7 Be careful

Finally, proceed with caution. Because even if you satisfy all the other criteria on this list, you will be going down a path that has been well-trodden by far less principled marketers. This means that your efforts may be judged with a certain amount of cynicism and your mistakes greeted with more schadenfreude than you deserve. As Unilever’s chief executive pointed out recently, the water has been polluted for everybody (although it’s arguable that some of the offending effluence has seeped out of his own company).

In summary, purpose can indeed be a powerful weapon for some organisations. But it requires the right ammunition, a calm head and a steady aim on the distant horizon. So before you pull the trigger, take a deep breath. Otherwise you might find that you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Andy Nairn is co-founder of Lucky Generals