And... what the devil happened to good ol' hard sell?
Brand Marketer: That's a good storyboard, but where's the purpose? It's the 127th 'P' of marketing, you see.
Advertising Executive: See, gender equality and anti-corruption are taken. We could stand for lesbian rights. Or wait, let's make the protagonist a single dad undergoing treatment for heart disease... or transgender, perhaps?
Brand Marketer: Let's go with all... and toss in animal rights for good measure.
No, that is not a transcript of an actual conversation. But, it might as well be, seeing as how every second brand out there bends over backwards to stand for a larger purpose today. Carbonated beverage brand Mirinda tried punning on the fizz element to make a statement about releasing exam time pressure. Fashion brand Oxemberg ran a digital campaign about cleaning up Versova beach, among other causes; the disparity between this campaign and the brand's in-cinema advertising, in which Caucasian models ramp walk the streets of first world countries, is laughable. Animesh Singh, marketing manager, Oxemberg, told us, at the time, "...the best way to connect with Millennials is through purpose-led marketing. The young generation wants to stand for a cause and have its own opinion."
Some of the messaging of this kind - let's embrace the term 'cause-vertising' for a moment - appears as though the brand in question has gone out of its way to retrofit a purpose into its advertising. And around festivals and 'special' days like Mother's Day, Women's Day, Valentine's Day, etc. brands get positively maniacal about looking for causes to use in their ads. It doesn't help that there are too many brands and too few ad-friendly causes.
Sure, Tata Tea and P&G got it right with purpose-heavy statements like 'Jaago Re' (social awakening) and 'Share The Load' (laundry equality), respectively. In fact, Sushant Dash, Tata hand who wrote the first 'Jaago Re' brief, said it gave the brand "the moral high ground" and Josy Paul who cracked 'Share The Load' for Ariel believes "advertising should resolve social conflicts". But there has since been a barrage of purpose-led messaging, which makes us wonder whether every brand really ought to take up a cause. Trouble is, in these politically correct times, no one dares question it, lest they come across as heartless. And that includes us at afaqs!; we've covered nearly every purpose-led ad, sometimes over other, more hardworking campaigns that didn't ride a purpose.
Global Trends, Local Mush
Of late, Unilever's chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed, easily one of the most powerful influencers of global marketing trends and practices, has been advocating the marriage of the marketing ("teams that sell more stuff") and CSR ("people who save the world)" teams. He has been quoted in several interviews this year saying things like "...having brands that deliver against a social/environmental agenda really does create good business," and "...right in our brand positionings we integrate the social message..." For Weed, it's all about "connecting purpose to purchase."
Earlier this year Facebook's VP of business and marketing partnerships David Fischer was quoted saying, "What I'm most excited about it is the fundamental shift we're seeing towards purpose-driven marketing... Brands realise that when they do good, they also do well."
While that's all very well and the importance of their words is lost on no one, the question that looms is: where does that leave advertising? For the past few months we've been on a steady diet of soppy, preachy ads that fuse product to purpose, but do little to entertain, hard-sell or even sell. There might exist some literature to prove it works, but anecdotal evidence suggests, and overwhelmingly so, it's a sham. As Ekta Relan, planning head of Mullen Lintas, wrote in a recent guest article for us, "A decade ago the question was: 'What is your single-minded brand proposition?' Now it is: 'What is your brand purpose?' The result: A heart-rending commercial. Where are those crazy beer and chips ads? I miss them..."
A recent ad by SC Johnson for its mosquito repellent brand 'All Out' urged consumers to #StandByToughMoms; the film was about a mother using the tough love technique from the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' school of thought, to discipline her son. While the message was worth propagating, the brand fit was suspect - the product could have been absolutely anything... an anti-dandruff shampoo, a detergent, a sanitary napkin, a laptop or a sunscreen lotion... as long as the adjective 'tough' could be used in its context somehow.
UrbanClap, a mobile marketplace for local services, has unabashedly rolled out campaign after cause-led campaign, around serious issues like gay rights and domestic violence. It's an app that helps one call a plumber or hire a wedding planner, and offers services that have nothing to do with the issues it takes up in its advertising.
Some brands use TV for product-centric messaging and save their purpose-led films for the digital medium, given the luxury of length it offers. The result is a fractured and discordant brand image. For instance, H&R Johnson, marketer of tiles, had a stretched out Katrina Kaif romancing the floor on one medium, and touching stories about wheelchair ramps and infrastructure for the blind on another. Nothing wrong with either kind of message... except, when they both come from the same brand at the same time. The brand looks like it has a dual, or split, personality.
So we spoke to several senior advertising and marketing folks about this fad. Some helped us understand where it came from, others helped us guess where it's going.
Insisting that the best way for a brand to embrace a 'cause' is to embed it into its core - ('Baked In' as admen and authors Alex Bogusky and John Winsor, put it) - brand strategist Ambi Parameswaran says, "Unfortunately brands have now started the scheme of renting a cause a month. And this is just a waste of time. Consumers are not going to see you in better light just because you did an ad with a vision impaired photographer, or a differently-abled child. Ideally if a brand wants to stand for a cause it should pick a cause that can be embedded into the core of the brand and live with that cause for the next five years. If not, stay with good old fashioned messaging that touches both the rational and emotional chords of consumers. That still works."
CSR Versus Cause-vertising
Brand marketers have a different take on it. While some claim there is pressure from the agency end to write briefs that are about a purpose - (interestingly, many agencies have the exact peeve; they claim clients tend to write too many purpose-centric briefs these days) - others have erased the line between corporate social responsibility related messaging and mainline brand messaging.
Cautioning against this, Kaushik Prasad, general manager - consumer marketing, Ford India (views expressed are personal), says, "We need to make the distinction between CSR and 'cause-vertising'. If it's not CSR, then cause-vertising needs to have a strategic linkage to the brand and its business. It needs to move some metrics. Say, a home cleaner brand espousing the cause of Swachh Bharat has a direct link to its business. Consumers are smart and can see through 'BS'. Be persuasive, not pretentious. Get the organisation's commitment behind it; the cause shouldn't leave along with the CMO. And get metrics in place to know it is working... no, winning at Cannes cannot be the only objective..."
What's so tempting about going down this 'cause'-way, anyway?
We live in an era in which coffee is a cup of resolve (Nestlé's Nescafé) and tea is a social leveller (Unilever's Brooke Bond Red Label). But how and why did we get here? Marketing strategy consultant Lubna Khan (ex W+K) surmises, "Brands have started to talk about purpose because there is a global cultural shift in expectations from corporations. Consumers and employees expect businesses to go beyond profit, and contribute positively to society...," going on to caution, "Purpose should be authentic. It should come from the beliefs, values and practices of the brand and its organisation. If it's just a cynical attempt to ride the current bandwagon, consumers will see through it and create a backlash. Purpose should go beyond advertising, marketing and CSR. All employees and partners should be consulted when espousing a purpose; they should be supported as they act on it every day."
In 2003, an era when lather was still considered to be directly proportionate to a detergent's cleansing abilities, Surf Excel launched a low foam, water-saving formula. This, like Lifebuoy's 'Help a child reach five' initiative, had a strong connection with the main job of the product.
When French apparel brand Lacoste took up a cause recently, the team integrated the purpose into the product itself, by replacing the trademark crocodile logo with images of endangered animals. It was a limited edition collection for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. While one may argue that wildlife conservation has little to do with fashion, it's the brand's original crocodile logo that readily lent itself to this kind of 'purposeful' tweaking. Few months back, Unilever's SVP of sustainable business development and communications Sue Garrard famously said, "Purpose is not lipstick, it's the DNA in your business." Lacoste didn't really make good on this criterion. But it didn't preach either.
Vani Gupta, former PepsiCo marketer and present day co-founder of consulting firm Hypersonic Advisory, attributes the overwhelming tendency towards purpose-led communication to intense competition, lack of functional differentiators and the need to ride the wave around some or the other burning issue. When a brand says 'buy me for the stand I take in society', it basically offers consumers a shortcut to participating in a larger cause without candle light marches or any other kind of investment of their time and effort, goes her argument.
"There are more consumers now than before who wish to participate in positive social change. Consumers are attracted to brands that can tie in their product performance to larger issues. They feel assured when brands maintain their purpose over a period of time. But I am pained by brands that wish to exploit my emotions by treating deep fundamental issues through a topical and tactical lens. Knowing the difference in these two states is critical for a purpose-led marketing strategy to succeed," she says.
But how many Jaago Res can there be?
The moral high ground is, by definition, a place for a select few. If everyone summits, the peak plateaus. Done well - and those are the operative words here - cause-related advertising can be a differentiator and a strong competitive advantage even, feels Puneet Das, tea marketing head, India, Tata Global Beverages (marketer of Tata Tea). "Consumers have evolved and want to understand whether a product is aligned to their values. But they're able to see through brands that jump from one year's fashionable cause to the next or brands that don't have consistent, authentic conversations related to the social cause they take up. Winning in this space demands a deep commitment to transparency and authenticity," he says.
Emphasising the importance of a sensible connect between brand and cause, Das adds, "One of the telecom brands had done a 'Save The Tiger' campaign - while relevant to the audience, it is not necessarily an intuitive fit for the brand or the category." A Google search reveals he's referring to Aircel.
Last year, when Pepsi tried to ride the social wave around the Black Lives Matter movement through its Kendall Jenner ad film, it evoked massive outrage and was compelled to apologise and pull the ad down. Many felt, the film, in depicting images of public protests and demonstrations evidently appropriated from the actual movement, made light of it. "Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologise" said Pepsi then. Coca-Cola took a smaller risk in comparison by trying to ride the 'LGBT marketing wave' (that reached Indian brand shores months back) when it created limited edition cans of Coke that had Fanta inside; in Brazil, the phrase 'That Coke is a Fanta' is a homophobe's derogatory way of saying 'That person is homosexual'.
Budweiser's 2017 Super Bowl ad about founder Adolphus Busch's journey from Germany to America in the 1850s, that tried to ride the discussion around US immigration policies, was bashed by many, not least by Trump's troop. Clearly, a purpose-led ad cannot be a one-off stunt, especially when the brand's usual advertising tone is of a completely different note. As marketing consultant Sita Narayan Swami sums up, "Don't 'cause wash'. Your brand must walk the talk. The cause needs to be built into the overall strategy and not just the advertising campaign, failing which there could be potential backlash."
This wave of purpose-led messaging will not last. In advertising history, this cause-obsessed phase will stick out as an era of mass stupidity.
Based on additional interviews with Bhavishya Kellapan, business head, Mia, Paroma Ganguly, director, strategy, Iris Worldwide, Shalini Gupta, VP, brand communications, Lokmat, marketing communications professional Lakshmipathy Bhat, and Lloyd Mathias, brand marketing expert.
A Note From the Editor
Few months back, during an edit meeting about advertising trends, we were discussing a bunch of ads released in quick succession that, each, implored viewers to download the mobile app of the brand in question. "Just how many apps are we supposed to download?" said a frustrated reporter. "Besides, does every brand really need an app?" asked another.
The starting point of our cover story this issue is a similar question, albeit in a different context - Does every brand really need a larger purpose? Over the past few months, a large chunk of the campaigns we've reviewed on afaqs!, are about brands that have gone out of their way to stand for a larger social cause. Hardly an Indian fad, this kind of messaging is loosely called 'cause-vertising', across markets. Over a year back, when P&G released a video called 'The Talk', about black parents telling their kids to call out racial inequality, classified under the company's 'My Black is Beautiful' initiative, the trend was just taking off. Today, it has reached a crazy crescendo.
In 2011, I attended a presentation by Laurie Coots, then chief marketing officer, TBWA Worldwide; she said at the time, "Purpose is the next big buzzword that'll do the rounds for the next two years..." It's been seven years since, and the word's still around. Obviously, there's a reason for this. We decided to look into the subject and find out why brand marketers and their agencies feel such intense FOMO (that's Millennial tongue for 'fear of missing out') when it comes to making ads based on social causes, problems and realities. The 'Jaago Re' phenomenon, some call it.
One obvious reason is awards; a lot of the Indian entries that win big at international advertising awards shows are campaigns hinged on a larger purpose. But that can't be it. There's more to the story. Read our cover story for some theories, mild and scathing.ASHWINI GANGAL