Brand purpose moves from cause and CSR to stating a POV about many issues
Initiatives can be risky and controversial,
but social media leaves no place to hide
by Jane Ostler
Managing Director, Media & Digital
Kantar Millward Brown UK
Purpose used to be about having a cause, and brands delivered that through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. But the world has moved on. Social media has made all brand activity more risky, so purpose isn’t enough anymore; brands need to have a clear and publicly stated point of view on many things, including media and marketing.
As a result of worker welfare scandals around 20 years ago, brands like Nike had to take defensive action to ensure that subcontractors in their supply chains were behaving honorably. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments were set up to manage and oversee the new contracts and write reports. Brands began to define themselves not just on their intrinsic merits but also on their approach to broader global matters such as carbon neutrality, local communities, child labor, diversity, and sustainability. CSR is now actively woven into brand marketing programs; for example, Unilever’s global sustainable living initiatives are firmly attached to individual brands like Knorr and Sunlight.
We know from BrandZ™ that brands with purpose--those that are “trying to make people’s lives better”—outperform those without. We measured brand value for the same 87 brands in 2006 and 2017, and the top third (High-purpose brands) grew nearly three times more over that period than the bottom third (Low-purpose brands).
But a vague sense of purpose isn’t enough anymore. It needs to be specific, authentic, and intrinsic to every brand action and behavior. There are so many more places where brands can take a wrong step. Social media enables consumers to harness collective power, sign petitions, respond publicly, humiliate and protest about almost any corporate activity. Public backlashes are becoming more frequent, and these grab social media attention and then spiral out of control. It’s clear that brands are taking more risks than they should, particularly in media and marketing. This is a very delicate situation which can destroy brand growth overnight. Brands should take ownership of all their actions by minimizing risk, and, ideally, making it positive.
Brands like KIND, the healthy snack food company founded in 2004 by Daniel Lubetsky, have a purpose that is at the very heart of their business, their products, and their marketing. But more than that, they define responsibility: not only do they use all natural ingredients, but they also encourage their consumers to be kind. Their aim is “make the world kinder, one snack and one act at a time,” and with their global expansion, this purpose is spreading.
Recently it’s become even more obvious that brands need to take responsibility for their actions in marketing and media. The withdrawal of advertising from YouTube by brands whose ads have appeared alongside unacceptable content has resulted in a big debate about who is responsible.
And campaigns like #stopfundinghate mean that brands are now obliged, more than ever before, to have a view on the contexts in which they appear. Brands need to have a point of view, a policy; they can’t just leave it to media agencies and publishers to decide what happens to their ads, or they could damage or even contradict their stated purpose.
Point of view on context: With the rise of ad tech and programmatic media, the digital media supply chain is complex and unwieldy, with myriad creative options. The recent furore about brand advertising appearing alongside inappropriate content on YouTube means that brands have to develop checks and balances for their programmatic activity, where context is completely stripped away in favor of following the target audience. And media owners need to develop algorithms and human intervention to prevent the content from appearing on the wrong platforms in the first place. This brand purpose is about protecting a brand from harm.
Point of view on ad formats: Kantar Millward Brown’s AdReaction research shows that receptivity in all generations is highly negative for ad formats which irritate consumers. The members of Gen Z are particularly sensitive to this; they like control and interaction. Using formats that people dislike only serves to undermine the industry long term. A great example of what brands can do is to become part of the Coalition for Better Ads, which was set up to discourage advertisers and publishers from using highly irritating ad formats like pop-ups. This part of a brand’s purpose is about not annoying consumers.
Point of view on political associations: We’ve all seen those charts that define Brexiters/Remainers by the supermarket where they shop and the brands they buy. The Uber CEO stepped down from Trump’s Economic Advisory Council after employees protested that it was inappropriate in the light of the travel bans. Frankly, it would be a bold brand that came out publicly on either side of a political debate. However, it may benefit some brands. This part of a brand’s purpose is about taking care not to alienate its audience.
Point of view on how to take control: You could argue that brands have outsourced too much responsibility to agencies and suppliers. If something’s not explicitly stated in an agency contract, it’s not going to happen, so brand points of view on viewability, brand safety, and measuring the real effectiveness of advertising will need to become more prevalent. This brand purpose is about making sure brands don’t abdicate responsibilities which should be theirs to manage.
We are beginning to see brands starting to take leadership positions on complex media and marketing matters. Tesco and Airbnb are now hiring their own media experts in-house, for example.
We need to re-purpose purpose from its current nebulous definition to be all-encompassing and credible: at heart, brands should take responsibility. In a marketing and media environment that’s fundamentally entropic, with consumers not behaving as they used to, marketers need to seize the opportunity to have a point of view and take control if they want to minimize risk and maximize their growth opportunities.