Would the world really miss you if you didn’t exist?

Would anyone care if brands just disappeared? Four judges from the WARC Awards on what brand purpose is and what, at its best, it can achieve.

Aligning a brand to a purpose caught the zeitgeist long before attempts were made to understand its effects, or even its meaning. Put simply, it is the why behind a company’s actions. But some of these are more sincere than others, and some derive more commercial value than others.

During a panel session at the 2017 WARC Awards presentation evening in London, Tom Knox, Chairman of MullenLowe London, invited a selection of Awards judges to speak about their attempts to isolate, understand, and reward the most effective instances of brand purpose. Knox is a well-known name in the field: in a previous incarnation as president of the IPA, he brought to the institute a new agenda, one that set out to prove a guiding idea.

“It’s my strong belief advertising can be a noble profession and what we do is fundamentally of great value and good,” he said in his inaugural speech. “It’s no longer good enough to say we merely reflect society – we should set ourselves a higher goal and realise a more progressive ambition.”

That was back in 2015. Two years later the conversation continues. Andy Last, CEO of PR and strategic comms agency MullenLowe Salt, offered a simpler question by which to judge purpose. “Would the world really miss you if you didn’t exist?”

This is admittedly rare. Glib examples of purpose have become something of an industry joke, exemplified by the Cannes Grand Prix generator.

“Purpose isn’t tactics, and purpose isn’t cute creative stuff,” said Laurence Green, founding partner of 101 London. When done properly it is a “deliberate, planned, commonly understood commitment”. The emphasis is on both the longevity and the sincerity of a company’s commitment.

While charities will always have a purpose to their existence, many companies have none other than making a profit. Part of the potency, then, is the coming together of a profit-driven enterprise with a broader societal need – in short, an understanding of context.

Agencies have a role in observing the world, finding and illuminating to brands what matters, and leveraging it as creative influence, the panel agreed. But with some limitations.

“One of the problems with purpose,” Green said, “is that it can be boring.” The agency’s role, he contended, is to identify not only the appropriate alignments for a brand, but those that are truly original.

The ability to identify externalities points, perhaps, to a need for agencies to define their own priorities, suggested Jonathan Wise, of the Comms Lab. “Most big agencies are value neutral,” he said. “They just do what clients tell them; that’s what most agencies would say – their mission statement is: to help their clients grow.”

He pointed to the necessity of more nuanced accounting for both clients and agencies. Unilever’s adoption of sustainability at the core of its business is instructive, not just for other brand owners, but for the agencies themselves. By accounting for a broader set of metrics, the triple bottom line, an agency’s capacity to do purpose-led work becomes far more potent, Wise added.

Finding an original purpose requires experimentation. Yet original campaigns often take leaps and brands have to allow for a degree of uncertainty if they wish to experiment. At the same time, the effects have to be allowed to play out over time; the financial year, after all, is not the natural rhythm to which audiences form ideas and attachments. Leila Fataar, Founder of cultural influence business Platform 13, contended that being different is what matters.

“Purpose doesn’t have to be worthy,” she said. Sometimes it can just be fun, but it has to run plausibly through each of the brand’s activations, ringing true the whole way through. For instance, at Diageo, Fataar worked on an activation for Captain Morgan rum, a brand whose purpose is to inspire through fun. It was around the time Leicester City had won the premier league with their captain Wes Morgan at the helm.

The activation felt sincere. But it also required experimentation. After all, where are you supposed to find a case study showing how a brand partnered with a serendipitously named footballer whose typically mid-league team has just won the national title?

It goes back to commitment. Asked about long-term purpose, Fataar didn’t think this could be achieved simply within the fiscal year. “Everyone has to come out of the fiscal year.” Measurement, necessarily, must look at the long-term.

Does anyone care?

Sometimes, London can be tone deaf; and within the city, Soho and Clerkenwell can be even more detached from reality. Some events may appear significant from within the M25, but not so much elsewhere. As Knox pointed out, Volkswagen was recently found to have lied systematically and over a long period about diesel emissions, but people are still buying their cars – lots of cars.

With regards to Volkswagen, Jonathan Wise noted, the brand’s 50 years of powerful advertising may just have kept the company in consumers’ good books. But the challenge is bigger: advertising should acknowledge and drive toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, he argued, not least sustainability of production and consumption. “Corporates and insurance companies know that if you don’t sort it out, there’s not going to be much business,” he added, and so should this industry.

Despite the “vomit-inducing” mentions of purpose in briefs, a commitment to an idea, when done well can drive retail preference. What’s more, Green added, there is evidence that is galvanises employees in their work. Thirdly, the impact on regulators and legislators is similarly important, in maintaining a licence to operate.

Optics are themselves important. “Brands are businesses’ contribution to society,” noted Jonathan Wise, meaning that a brand’s interaction with its externalities is a crucial part of a business’s visible output.

At the same time, Fataar pointed out, none of this is particularly new. Powerful brands have often tugged at heartstrings and made people (and retailers) feel good about a product. Good brands have always had some sort of unifying idea or principle to bring it all together. The difference, she said, is that now we are measuring it.


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