Nisha Qureshi & Ubaid Zargar

Rethinking 'Goodness': The perceived virtue of brand purpose in today's market

A ‘purpose’ and a product may not always align with each other, hence we must stop ‘force-fitting’ it in every campaign possible, say industry leaders.

Several global giants, such as Dove, Coca-Cola, and Ariel, have built their identities around supporting various causes, while smaller brands are increasingly focusing on defining their purpose from the outset.

However, even advocates of purpose-driven advertising recognise the potential pitfalls of half-hearted and overly aggressive approaches. Unilever, a prominent proponent of purpose-driven marketing, recently announced a shift away from forcing purpose into all its brands. 

“I don't think we advance the cause of purpose by force fitting it across every brand, ” were  Global CEO, Hein Schumacher’s words to his investors recently. The brand’s recent move can be attributed to the criticisms from its investors about defining ‘purpose’ for products as basic as ‘Mayonnaise’. 

The trend of purpose-driven advertising has only grown and an array of brands now keep purposes and causes at the forefront of their marketing strategies. 

Also Read: Unilever to stop force-fitting ‘purpose’ in its brands says CEO Hein Schumacher

Unilever's development prompts us to consider whether every product or campaign must contribute to a greater good, or if the concept of purpose and "causevertising" has been overused. Industry leaders suggest that while purpose is essential, it should not be shoehorned into every brand and campaign. Brands must find a balance between their core promise and their purpose.

As per the Havas 2023 Global Meaningful Brands report, 72% of the people feel that it is important for brands to be affiliated with causes that are good for the planet and society, and 71% also feel that brands should be improving their personal health and well-being. It says that while people care about the causes and purposes, everyday lives have become difficult. In such an environment, brands should focus on improving the lives of the consumers.

Companies like us with the most diverse portfolio need to be cautious and refrain from riding the wave without a detailed thought process.
Rajiv Dubey, head of media, Dabur India

Rajiv Dubey, head of media at Dabur India opines that being purposeful is undoubtedly a winning mechanism however, ‘force-fitting’ this into branding, marketing and communication is never a right call.  “Companies like us with the most diverse portfolio need to be cautious and refrain from riding the wave without a detailed thought process. There is a particular spectrum between brand promise and brand purpose. When you have an array of brands you need to identify brands fitting at different levels of spectrum.”

Causes should complement the brand’s primary purpose

"Nowadays ‘purpose’ is always assumed to have goodness."
Amit Wadhwa, CEO, dentsu Creative

Amit Wadhwa, CEO, dentsu Creative feels while it is necessary for brands to have a ‘purpose’, the perception that every purpose is ‘good’ is what might need to be relooked at. He says while brands like Dove and Tesla have established ‘goodness’ in their purpose, not all brands can do that. For example, Nike’s mission is to motivate every athlete in the world, similarly, Uber’s purpose is to establish transportation in every corner of the world. 

“Your purpose could be as small as letting people have fun.  Nowadays ‘purpose’ is always assumed to have goodness,” he says. 

"Don't indulge in woke-washing."
Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and independent director

Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and independent director opines that Unilever's move is honest. He says many brands claim purpose without any evidence or demonstration of their commitment and simply indulge in woke-washing. He says the brand's purpose should be an integral part of the problem that the brand is solving, for it to be authentic.

“Both brands and businesses have to be careful that they do not indulge in ‘woke-washing’ by force-fitting purpose, without genuine intent.”

Purpose cannot be short-lived

Pradnya Popade, Head - Marketing Communications at Samsonite South Asia says that committing to a cause can’t be a one-time thing, there are many brands that engage in cause-vertising for the sake of it. While the campaigning or the efforts might garner them quick publicity, in the long run, half-hearted and short-sighted purpose-led campaigns lose any practical recall value.

She further adds that a lot of the time brands can pick a cause that doesn’t resonate very well with the consumers. However, the truth is, a brand’s image is often a reflection of its quality of service. In circumstances where brands may make a mistake with a particular choice of cause or how they represent it, consumers may be more accommodating as long as the brands learn and grow.

Can a balance between purpose and pure sales?

Josy Paul, Chairman at BBDO India says that finding the right context, so that the brand stays relevant and can truly make a difference to people’s lives is a promise that cannot be changed over the years. Stating an example of Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad, he says, “It’s resulted in millions and millions of new users for Ariel, year on year. We are seeing a significant impact on business, brand and society.”

A brand exists to create a need which they can sell to a consumer. However, the consumers have their own challenges and priorities so it becomes difficult to judge how consumers may react to a campaign. Citing her own example, Popade adds, “Being an avid Surf Excel consumer myself, it wasn’t difficult for me to shift to Ariel. This was particularly because of how the brand’s ‘Share the load’ campaign talked to me. So, communication is always the key in determining the influence of a cause-based campaign.”

Dubey suggests that at Dabur they make sure they deliver the promises they make with their strong brands. “We have many brands with strong brand promises and that keeps the adoption ratio high as we consistently deliver on those promises. We don’t need to step into the zone of brand purpose. Then there are other sets of brands that need to get closer to the consumer. There we take purpose-driven routes.”

He states that one of the brand’s toilet cleaners ‘Sanifresh’ had much room to grow in the low involvement category it belongs to. The brand took the initiative of building toilets which got them the right attention as well as awards. 

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