Let's stop confusing 'pro-social' with 'purpose'

July 13, 2017

The brand purpose backlash has started and I am rolling my eyes.



It's led to terrible ads!

It's distracting brands from making great products!

It's bloated and presumptive!


Can we just all take a breath here and start from the beginning? By separating brand purpose and pro social advertising.


They are two wildly different approaches. 


In 2015, Jonah Sachs called for brands to take on social causes. In the wake of successes such as Leo Burnett's 'Like a Girl' and Dove's Real Beauty', spurred by falling trust, employee disengagement and the rise of 'being woke', marketing managers the world over fell over themselves to align around relevant issues.


Then came 'fake news', YouTube scandals, 'purposewash' and 'that' Pepsi advert. Consumers and marketers alike are starting to ask valid questions. Suddenly, 'purpose' has lost its shine.


Except I'd argue that 'brand purpose' has got confused with 'pro-social' advertising. And this needs to stop.


Brands with great intentions are making video adverts promoting causes which the brand isn't moving the needle on. And brand savvy people smell BS.


The sustainability comms world has seen this before. The greenwash debate of 2007 was derived of a similar source: brands wanting to be seen to be good, without actually linking this promise with core business.


Sustainability is an unsexy management approach, whilst pro social is glossy comms. One plagued by its complexity, the other not robust enough to stand scrutiny. True purpose is a hybrid. Defining what a brand stands for in a single-minded fashion, whilst aligning activity to deliver on that purpose. Unlike a pro-social approach, it defines everything a brand does, from why their employees feel good about working there to their brand positioning and product design. It's from the inside out, a new sort of business. A useful tool to align what a company really stands for and guide it towards taking positive action. In a world where three quarters of brands could disappear without fanfare, a good purpose strategy gives you legitimacy with cynical millennials and Gen Z, growing your business whilst sharpening your intent.


Let's not forget too that not every brand needs to change the world, for every disruptive Apple, there is a humble Baileys.


The moral for me is not that purpose marketing is finished, but, like with any disruptive idea, that it needs to be done properly. It's a hell of a lot more than a simple video ad.


My advice? Beware the naysayers: choose your agency well, pick something you can be proud of and be prepared to roll your sleeves up. A beautiful, campaign that defines what your brand stands for is the catalyst, not the finish line.

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