A little over a decade ago, one noticed the emergence of a new conversation in Indian advertising. It was around how you defined your brand. There had been brand-briefing formats and brand identity frameworks like the Unilever Brand Key and Kapferer's Brand Prism; but now, there was something different.
My first exposure to it was the DDB's Brand Foundation framework which had questions like - 'What is our fight?' and 'Why is this fight important?' It felt interesting, inspiring and most importantly, offered a route to differentiate the brand beyond the obvious functional/emotional approach.
What was actually happening was, perhaps, much more significant. It was outlined well in a project called 'The Future of Advertising' at the Wharton School of Business. Impacted by the shifting media dynamics and outlook towards marketing and consumption itself, the project concluded that there were new imperatives for brands. To think, not just of the consumer, but society at large; to answer the question - why is the world a better place because of the idea of the brand? It was a call to acknowledge and reduce the very selfish nature of consumption which impacts the world in various ways adversely. Indiscriminate use of scarce resources, pollution, unfair treatment of workers at sweatshops, and buyers caught in debt traps being some of them.
This maybe was the birth of a new 'P' in marketing - Purpose.
Going beyond the old 'P - proposition', which was more consumer-centric, 'purpose' pushed brand thinkers to address the larger human question. Rather than restrict such thinking to CSR activities, it brought the subject to the centre-stage.
Since then, many brand campaigns have articulated their purpose with varying degrees of success. While some have evoked a highly positive response, many barely noticed and some were stirring up the proverbial hornet's nest.
The latter two cases give critics of the purpose-led approach ammunition to attack. They believe brands should stick to offering a solid consumer proposition and not attempt this grandstanding which most consumers can easily see through. Though I believe the critics are making the mistake of throwing the baby with the bathwater, there is some bath water we need to take care of.
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The intent of the brand purpose is not to replace the proposition, but to transcend it. Define your brand purpose, without losing grip on the good old proposition as the foundation of the purpose. The societal lens is important, but not at the cost of the customer. So, if your brand purpose ignores the consumer proposition or worse, goes against it, you need more work on it.
A simple way to see the two is in their What and Why connection. Think of your consumer proposition as the what-you-do and your brand purpose the why-you-do-it (DDB's 'why is our fight important' question is seeking the brand purpose).
When the 'Why' lacks a strong link with the brand's 'What', it comes across as a preachy, insincere speech, much like that of politicians. Chances are, such campaigns will die without a whimper. The ones that risk going wrong (the latest Gillette one, in my view) are the ones that get so carried away by the fashionable purpose of the day that they lose sight of their audience and the proposition.
There is no denying that the message was important, Gillette forgot who the audience was and what their need in this context was. When the dominant narrative in media, overall, is painting an entire gender as guilty, it is but natural that its members feel cornered and unfairly targeted. A brand built on the proposition of helping men attain their best state as men, needed to be mindful of this.
Unwittingly, the brand joined the wolf pack, taking a judgemental look at its own consumer. Instead of helping men feel their best, it painted them in their worst stereotype. The worst a man can get might have been a more apt tagline!
In contrast, when campaigns from P&G's other brands like Ariel and Pantene raise similar empowering narrative talking to women, they work much better.
Not surprisingly, Gillette's campaign got a big thumbs down from men overall. While Gillette has tried to put up a brave front saying they were happy to have stirred up the conversation, the truth is, the media was doing it very well already. So, they are neither likely to get credit for pioneering a new conversation nor benefit in terms of superior sales results.
In the meantime, we can all take wisdom from this illustration of not forgetting the consumer proposition in the pursuit of purpose.
(Amit K Shrivastava is the founder of Learning Curve, a brand strategy, consumer insights and training firm)
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