Has purpose been hijacked by marketing?

by Nick Ranger, Head of Consulting.

Google. Airbnb. Twitter. Facebook. Volvo. Samsung. Burger King.

It's been hard to miss big brands like these flying their flags as they march towards making the world a better place. Google investing in STEM and crowdfunding over €10 million for refugees. #TwitterForGood Day, where Twitter employees work with non-profits and communities – and then talk about it using the hashtag. Volvo with its LifePaint, reflective paint for cyclists and pedestrians that's invisible in daylight but glows in headlights.

All very laudable. Some of the world's most powerful brands turning their sights towards making a positive difference to people's lives, and then telling the world how they're doing just that. What's not to like?

But then there was Pepsi. Forced to pull their notorious Kendall Jenner ad in just 36 hours, after a social media backlash. Widely accused of overstepping the mark by implying that a fizzy drink can ease racial tensions.

There's no question that we're seeing a wave of socially conscious marketing – and brands of all types are looking to use purpose to enhance their image. But for some, like Pepsi, the opposite is happening.

So is this type of marketing really helping companies to grow their reputations as responsible brands? Or is it just creating an increasingly cynical audience?

The answers are yes, and also yes. Purpose-driven marketing is inspiring when done right; potentially damaging when it isn't.Tweet this So whether you're a consumer brand or B2B, handle with care.

Are you ready to fly the purpose flag?

If you're considering purpose-led marketing or are working on purpose in your organisation, here are three questions you should be asking before giving the green light to any external campaign.

1. Does your organisation have a clearly defined purpose?

If the answer is no, it's worth looking at the role purpose could play in your organisation.

If your business has a very clear sense of direction shared by all – even if this is to make the best product on the market – then you have a purpose in the widest sense. And a strong purpose can be a real guiding light. It can unlock performance and motivate everyone in the company.Tweet this

Many organisations these days – such as the ones we've just mentioned – add a social element to their purpose. Something that gives them a reason to exist beyond simply selling a product or service.

Do you bring something to your employees other than a paycheck, and to your shareholders beyond profit? What impact are you making on the world?

If you're struggling to answer these questions, purpose-led marketing is not something you should be considering. Best not to jump on the bandwagon before you know where you want to go.

2. Where does purpose fit in your organisation?

The ideal answer to this question is everywhere. From the C-suite and corporate strategy to your product offerings. From your employee experience to your investor proposition. Purpose is not a quick win, a good-looking advertising campaign or a corporate responsibility programme. It truly defines why an organisation exists. And it's a long-term commitment.

For it to be truly meaningful, your purpose has to be fundamentally ingrained in what your business does and how it works – driven and supported by top leadership.Tweet this

It should be what gets employees out of bed in the morning and inspires them to do their best. Each person needs to know what it is, why it matters and, importantly, what they can do to support it. Much more than words on a page,  your purpose should run through every aspect of the working day all around your business.

In other words, for your purpose to be credible your employees have to understand, believe in it and live it. Only then are you ready to start talking about it externally. Purpose starts on the inside.

3. Are you being authentic?

Unless purpose lives through and through an organisation, it's just another campaign. That's when it can feel hijacked. And that's when audiences get cynical.

These audiences can be employees, too. Recruitment marketing teams are often trying to attract millennials. Knowing their audience is looking for more than just a paycheck from work, it might be tempting to paint a rosy picture of an organisation and its purpose. But if your employee proposition doesn’t reflect the day-to-day reality of how you do business, you're simply seeding disappointment.

Purpose goes far beyond advertising. It should help you join the dots throughout the business – everything should connect back to why you exist.Tweet this And your marketing should support your purpose, not create one that has no connection to what's at the heart of what you do and how you work.

Earn your stripes

Brands that bolt cause-based marketing onto a purely profit-focused business are the ones that will feel a backlash, as Pepsi did. There has to be an inherent truth to any campaign. If you're talking about social issues, they must be ones that connect to what you do, and why you do it.

You don't build a purpose-led brand through an advertising campaign alone. You build it from the inside out, with employees first. If your organisation truly does have a social conscience that lives and breathes in how you think and work, you'll have the credibility to create authentic campaigns around it.

In other words, brands first have to walk the purpose walk. Then they can talk the talk.

Nicolai Berntsen