Brands should consider the pitfalls of hitching themselves to the purpose wagon

The authenticity craze and ‘millennials’ obsession has led brands to overplay their hand, and confuse the need to stand for something genuine with a desire to stand for something worthy, writes Kate Richardson in this excerpt from Eat Your Greens.

Too many brands are making the mistake of orienting themselves around a lofty, higher purpose that goes beyond the goal of profit, straying too far from their unique value and the realm of their category. Brands are getting distracted by standing for [insert important or worthy or socially conscious aspiration here] at the expense of standing for something relevant in the mind of their audience. In trying too hard to be responsible and caring, they’re coming across as tediously homogenous and utterly disingenuous.

All the hoo-ha about authenticity, the hype around social media and prevailing discussion in the marketing community, instigated by leaders like Paul Polman and Jim Stengel, have created a false sense of the importance that (most) brands play in our lives. The fashionable discourse on beliefs and purpose has given rise to the idea that even the most innocuous of products need to create important meaning in our lives, and bring us closer to what really matters, regardless of the real role the product occupies in daily life.

Jim Stengel’s Grow argued companies that subscribe to a ‘Brand Ideal’ significantly outperform their competitors. For his research, he chose the 50 top brands from Millward Brown’s database of 50,000. He then identified the common link in their superior share price growth as a purpose designed to improve the lives of others. While the methodology has been discredited, most notably by Byron Sharp and Richard Shotton, the mud has already stuck. And some of the top names in our industry have been evangelising the prosperity in purpose ever since.

Unilever’s Paul Polman has built a popular narrative around ‘Sustainable Living’, a purpose which he credits as the unifying force behind the company’s growth since it was first introduced in 2010. Last year, the company proudly announced that its ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew 50% faster than the rest of the company, and were responsible for 60% of the growth, an increase from 2015 when they grew 46% faster and accounted for 30% of the growth.

However, it’s difficult to determine whether the sustainable, purpose-driven nature of these brands was the only driving factor. For example, the company notes that, as of 2017, there are 18 Sustainable Living brands in the top 40 Unilever brands, up from 12 in 2015. With an additional six brands now counted in the numbers, there is a possibility that growth could have come, at least in part, by simply including more brands in the portfolio. In addition, it’s unclear whether the brands that fall outside the portfolio are in slower growing categories, fewer or lower growth markets, lack innovation, have been disrupted by new entrants to market, or have been hurt by insufficient investment.

This is not to criticise Unilever who are working to be a better, more sustainable employer, but rather to highlight the somewhat unchallenged narrative that has developed around purpose. While it may be appropriate for some brands, there is an increasing tendency to confuse creating a socially responsible company with designing the locus of a brand around a socially responsible aspiration.

This is exactly where brands like Pepsi and McDonald’s have made calamitous mistakes. Pepsi’s widely observed, disastrous Kendall Jenner fronted effort to deliver a message of ‘unity, peace and understanding’ was evidence of brand overreach as the company clearly forgot not only what it stood for, but the teensy tiny role it plays in shaping people’s lives (not to mention global harmony).

As Elle Hearns, executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (and formerly an organiser for Black Lives Matter) said, the ad “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilising protest. No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest, that’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”

Heineken’s ‘Worlds Apart’ video brought together strangers with opposing views to discuss their differences over a drink (surprise surprise it’s a Heineken). The video garnered plenty of chatter, but as Mark Ritson noted, there was little that was unique about the ad; its rights advocacy-based subject matter was perhaps a long way from the brand, and the video lacked distinction, as it could have been done by any beer brand.

Brands are right to think about the drivers of authenticity relevant to their category, story and product; however, companies should carefully consider the pitfalls of hitching themselves to the social purpose wagon as they risk diluting a distinctive position and diminishing their credibility.

Kate Richardson is principal consultant at KR & Co. Consulting. This article is an extract from her contribution to Eat Your Greens – fact based thinking to improve your brand’s health.


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