Brand Purpose Or Purposeful Politics?

Brand Purpose Or Purposeful Politics?
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In his final post for 2020, B&T regular Robert Strohfeldt takes a look at the murky and confusing world of cause and purposeful marketing…

Bob Miller is not a “household name” to marketers as it was 20 or so years ago – Bob was voted by B&T magazine as “marketer of the century”. (Obviously talking about the 20th century).

Bob was big on one- word positioning statements e.g. Toyota Landcruiser was “Survive”.

Most of my family are science and engineering based (they think quantitatively not qualitatively). I had dreams of becoming a Marine Ecologist, hence my subjects at high school and university were science based. So I was surrounded by friends and family who nearly all often used one word to describe marketing and advertising – ‘Bullshit”.

Nearly “everyone” is an expert in advertising. Unlike accounting and law, where there are statutory requirements, all can have an opinion on advertising. (There would be few working in advertising who have not had “amateurs” provide their opinions.)

You can’t go to jail for making a bad ad, unlike the consequence of poor, or deceptive, accounting.

Advertising has always been “where science meets art”. Prior to the “digital era” there was far more art than science. Hence, many professionals outside of advertising (particularly accounting and legal), believed advertising was something you just “made up”.  There was no “science” to it.

The word “bullshit” is not confined to those from outside the industry looking in. Bob Hoffman, widely regarded as one the giants of marketing & advertising, states “New digital tools “were sure to make advertising more timely, relevant, and likeable. And it all turned out to be bullshit. The truth is that advertising has got far worse and consumers hold us in lower regard than ever before”.

Many times I have argued that irrespective of the massive change and fragmentation of the media environment, the basics of marketing and advertising have not changed. (Customer centric – customers have always been at the center of all communications, branding now referred to as Distinctiveness. Advertising seems to be a bit like fashion – watch a 1950s movie and see a suit that looks great for today).

Though today, there is far more “science” in marketing and advertising (data has been described as the currency of marketing for the 21st century), the “bullshit” has kept pace with the science. Today it is now shoveled on so deeply; you need to brief geologists on where to dig to find the facts.

Buzz words and phrases of Gobbledygook and the relatively recent exponential growth in “brand purpose”, have added additional layers.

Gobbledygook example: “Instead, I believe we will continue to see the rise of a new breed of more entrepreneurial, multi-disciplinary groups that were forged in the digital age and that can prove to clients that they can truly bring together the right mix of specialist capabilities, around a compelling strategy and creative framework, in a flexible and agile way and to drive business results”

Purpose example: Gillette and male toxicity. (Before anyone jumps up and down saying I do not appreciate the issue of male violence towards woman, I am very aware and think it does not receive any where need the attention it should. 1 woman a week is killed by their male partner in Australia. Imagine if I person every week was killed in a shark attack? What would the news be saying and the public reaction? There would be mass hysteria.  But this disgusting/appalling statistic has gone on for decades and what do we get – piss weak campaigns and protection orders, which are nothing more than a piece of paper.

And what has Gillette done that genuinely has had a positive impact on this horrendous statistic? (Apart from a politically correct ad campaign).   Charge woman 25% more than men for razors.

For many years, Cause Marketing was the most popular approach to brands’ contributions to “worthy causes” – Charities (can carry a somewhat negative connotation), Not for Profits, NGOs, whatever name best fits. And the tax deductibility was an incentive.

As societies grow and with it the ever- increasing need for services, governments are finding it harder and harder to finance them. From aged care to infrastructure, user pay is often the answer. Sydney siders will know the cost of tolls and how their annual percentage cost increase beats the shit out of any fixed term deposit you can find.

Wesley Noffs, son of the Ted Noffs Foundation (TNF) founder and his wife Amanda (Mandy), best surmised the “thinking” behind corporate support of NGOs.  As much as it is fashionable in many quarters to deride highly paid CEOs and businesspeople, the primary reason they supported NGOs was to “give back”. Businesses and professional practices often benefited from sponsorship/association through good old fashioned “networking”. TNF held sponsor’s breakfasts -but the primary reasons for attendance was the quality of the speakers and topics. Not the opportunity of “drumming up business”- it was poor etiquette and would be a long time before you received another invitation.

Wes had a simple philosophy towards businesses sponsoring/supporting the TNF. If doing so for commercial benefit, then the business was in it for the wrong reason and Wes did not want or need their support. BUT there was an expectation businesses would gain some commercial benefit.

I have never head the issue of Cause Marketing so well put.

The very clear distinction today between Cause Marketing and Brand Purpose, is the latter is as much about “Look at me, Look at me”, as opposed to genuinely “giving back”.

Purpose Marketing is also far more “political” than Cause Marketing. Patagonia is an obvious example of Purpose Marketing.

Their new mission statement is “In business to save the planet”.  Founded in 1973, the company has pledged one per cent of sales since 1984 since  to support environmental issues. This amounts to $89 million, or just under $2.5 million a year since then. Though the company does not engage in any “advertising”, the amount pf PR generated, particularly within their niche segment of “outdoor wear” is highly significant. Even without any form of primary or secondary research, it is an obvious assumption people who engage in outdoor activities (across the spectrum from just bush walking to rock climbing and abseiling), are strong supporters of environmental protection.

History repeats – people who are not actively involved in these activities, follow the “in-crowd” as happened with surf wear.

And one per cent of sales for all “promotional” activity (though this money is going to a Cause), does generate an exceptionally high level of return. Considering that many mass market products spend upwards of six-eight per cent of sales on all promotional activities, Patagonia is having to spend far less than comparable clothing brands.

Though the owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard and his senior team would never openly admit to the massive publicity benefit gained from “spending” just 1% of sales, they would, without a doubt, know competing brands would spend 500% plus more to gain anywhere near the exposure they were getting.

So, Purpose Marketing, unlike Cause Marketing can be an incredibly effective promotional tool. (Promotional as in generating brand awareness and image, not some specific “promotion”.)

There is a huge difference between a tightly defined niche market and a mass market product. Though environmental concern has now broadened out into the mainstream. Patagonia happened to be in the right place at the right time. Social justice and anti-racism are also key elements of their narrative. In a recent Marketing Week YouTube podcast with Patagonia’s European Marketing Director, Alex Muller, he expressed hope for a “Greener” future under Biden.  He expressed concern that 48% of American voters chose a candidate who “openly undermined the environment and fuels racist narrative”.

Patagonia cannot be faulted for their obvious genuine desire to do what it can for environmental causes. And its target market is such that this “Purpose” is strongly supported, which results in sales success. (Though not in their mission statement, significant commercial success is a basic prerequisite for their Purpose to have any real impact). When purchasing Patagonia apparel, the customer not only believes they are supporting environmental issues, but they are also proudly wearing a “badge” of environmental care. A marketing masterstroke and I seriously doubt this issue also has not been discussed by the owner and his senior team.

But for a mass market, rather than a specific niche product, such commentary carries a large element of risk. As much as Trump is derided by a large majority of the people who work in advertising and marketing, the final washup (leaving out Trump’s crazy legal actions) of the presidential election was:

Biden – 51.3% of voters

Trump – 48.9% of voters.

America is no longer the United States of America, rather the Divided States of America. Personally, I think Trump is a buffoon and never have I seen a “politician” less fit to be president and hence the “leader of the free world”. But for all his faults, he is not a racist – I have listened to interviews in which it is claimed he supported white extremists. That is simply not true.

When become entangled in a political debate, you can anger around half the audience, no matter which way you go.

I think one word best describes the core attribute required of a marketer today – objectivity. What you think or believe is irrelevant (unless the dialogue is supportive of violence or any form of discrimination).

Again, the Trump example is relevant. Your colleagues may think you are “cool” for creating funny and cleaver content taking the piss out of Trump. (Not a difficult thing to do). But in the US, around half the population would more than likely boycott your products and services for doing so.

Distinct “Purpose” marketing, for the many mass market products, can “bite them on the bum.” Gillette and its stance on Male Toxicity is a classic case study. No doubt an issue that should be confronted, but is that the role of a business? Financial support for women who are victims of domestic violence, just one example, would achieve far more than to imply most men are “wife beaters”, or “wife beaters in waiting”.

This approach did not bring the desired publicity sought by the Male Toxicity approach –  it generated publicity but not the publicity Gillette was hoping for.

There is a clear distinction between “Cause” and “Purpose” marketing. The former is being a good, responsible corporate citizen and supporting NGOs, particularly in areas where government funding is “tight”. And the need for this will continue to grow.

There is an already a strong and still growing far left attitude/belief amongst younger age groups who were either not born, or too young, to remember the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. They seem to think a business is first a provider or supporter of social services and the commercial aspect is secondary.

So often I hear it said: “brands have to stand for something”. Yes, they do. Provide value for money, quality products and services and conduct themselves in an ethical manner and support NGOs where possible. (This may not generate the outright publicity of a political Purpose campaign but being a good corporate citizen filters through the communities they service. Business should be played as a long game, not a sprint)

Purpose marketing, on the other hand, has a very distinct political edge to it. The old saying “never discus sex, politics or religion at a dinner party” is said for the simple reason that once you take a particular stance on any of these issues:

  • They are highly emotive
  • Consensus is never reached.
  • An argument is highly likely

The Patagonia’s of the marketing world can use Purpose marketing to great effect, but for mass market brands, political positions, which are divisive, are best kept well clear of.

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  • Alan Zamparutti 7 months ago

    Terrific stuff. The Gobbledygook example describes so many BS ‘opinion piece’ artiticles you publish written by marketing “gurus” (cough).

Robert Strohfeld

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