From the look of things, it seems to me that the branding industry is facing some sort of “Purpose Tsunami”. Everyone seems to think that ‘purpose’ is the new advertising secret weapon. Brands are identifying hot causes, the more controversial the better, and then tagging along with campaigns to these topics. All in the name of purpose and to show that they care.
You might ask, “What’s so wrong with that? Aren’t they creating awareness…doing good?” But from where I’m standing, all I see is a lot of words and no meaning.
I get why 'purpose' is suddenly in the spotlight. The millennials love purpose. The age of the woke customer is upon us. People want to believe that they are part of something bigger…’doing good’ is social currency. From that perspective, these messages are easy wins. You can’t fault a company for wanting to save the whales, right?
People want to buy from companies that follow their purpose and are willing to step out of their comfort zones to push the purpose envelope. It’s also said that people want to work in companies that have a strong sense of purpose. That helps them feel more connected to the company because then, they feel that they are a part of something genuine. This helps them anchor themselves, their beliefs and values to it. Because today, unlike yesterday, not only is the customer woke, the employee is woke too.
A variety of statistics also support the rise of purpose.
Consumers are no longer making decisions based solely on product selection or price; they’re assessing what a brand says, what it does and what it stands for.
Consumers feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven brands
Brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175% over the past 12 years compared to the median growth rate of 86%
Clearly, the consumer expectations from a brand have never been higher. No wonder, brand purpose is the marketing buzzword of the year.
However, to me, much of what is being propagated in the name of Brand Purpose looks suspiciously like opportunism. Brands are following the money and not the purpose. That’s just purpose washing.
Let’s take Budweiser as an example. Of course, I have no problem with the beer. However, for International Women’s Day last year, Budweiser showcased female employees in departments such as mechanical engineering, health management, etc. Nothing wrong here.
What stuck out was the fact that Budweiser, much like most alcoholic beverage companies, has historically been running sexist advertisements as the norm. The brand still has Budweiser Girls. Well, of course, as is expected from all companies today, they take women empowerment seriously (sarcasm alert here). And while they have gone and revamped their ads to suit modern-day sensibility, there’s no real attempt to disavow the company’s past ads or for that matter, Budweiser Girls.
The Gillette campaign that targeted toxic masculinity is another example we must look at. I actually like the campaign. I believe they may be serious about turning a new leaf. But are they going far enough? Now if Gillette really wanted to put their money where their mouth is, a good starting point could perhaps be the pink Venus range for women. Let’s start with, why names like Embrace and Passion?
Let’s also look at the curious case of Unilever. The brands Axe and Dove are both under the Unilever umbrella. But notice how Dove focuses on spots like Real Campaign for Beauty while Axe Body Spray serially objectifies women?
And let’s not even get into the ‘rainbow pandering’ that happens during the LGBTQ Pride movements. While this is a welcome change that shows society’s cultural shift towards equality, it becomes pandering when companies exploit LGBTQ rights without meaningful action at their organisations. For example, Victoria’s Secret showed support for LGBTQ during Pride month, but the brand has serially refused to have transgender models for their annual fashion shows. That's hardly equality, is it?
Retailers like H&M, Primark, Target, and Levi Strauss have all gone gung-ho about rainbow apparel. But much of that apparel is manufactured in countries where it’s illegal to be gay.
I have an issue with this kind of marketing because such marketing creates dangerous blind spots and creates an illusion of progress. And also, let’s face it. The woke customer is smart enough to see through this charade. Remember how Pepsi was called out for its Black Lives Matter campaign?
Now Harvard Business Review credits ‘purpose’ as the key to 21st-century success. And with that, we have most brands singing the song of conscious capitalism – capitalism that has a soul. But when Starbucks doesn’t pay taxes, or Johnson and Johnson keeps 98% of its cash (amounting to an approximate $42 billion) offshore in 2017, they show that they don’t really care about the well-being of the people you serve.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying brands should drop everything and embrace causes or charities. I’m saying that they should be true to their Purpose. And Purpose must be linked with action. In that light, if a cause aligns with that Purpose, then they should wholeheartedly climb aboard. If not, then let it run its course independent of your opportunistic participation.
It is high time that brands understand that and put their money where their mouth is. Because otherwise, ‘purpose’ will lose its meaning. Look around, it’s already being mocked. Let’s not confuse brand activism with brand purpose and let’s also not just jump on the activism wagon for the marketing impact.