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BW Businessworld

Cannes Lions: The Problem Of Purpose

The marketing world is asking itself what its role is in people’s lives, and those failing to answer the poser aptly − and back it with the right action − stand to fade out of the big picture, writes BW Businessworld’s Noor Fathima Warsia

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In the last two years there has been a marked increase in the number of brands speaking the purpose language to solidify their presence in a consumer’s life. The likes of Unilever, P&G, Coca-Cola and Mondelez to name a few, have been highlighting their purpose-driven growth strategies for some time now, and many more have joined this list.

There is nothing new about the purpose approach. The more this is delved into, the clearer it is that articulating a company’s purpose is to sharply define the proposition that puts companies on the road towards being future ready.  

Reiterating this, Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble comments, “I’m surprised with people thinking purpose is new. It’s like they discovered it this year. Part of the issue with purpose is that it is not precise enough, and that this big, wide ranging thing if not done well, can actually take you off track from a business standpoint.”  

The problem of  ‘purpose’, if one can describe it as such, is in fact two-fold. First, the manner in which people can confuse it with philanthropy or even the once-upon-a-time version of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that often featured in the last few pages of a company’s annual report. Second, the fact that some brands speaking the purpose language are lacking in action, and hence, as industry captains put it, “corrupting” its very notion.

Purpose – Front & Centre
Whether it was the likes of a close knit, controlled stage such as the WPP Stream in Jaipur in February or a platform as global and as massive in scale as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June, purpose was discussed front and centre. Sixteen of the total 21 Grands Prix awarded at Cannes Lions this year went to ideas that were rooted in some form of a social cause.  

As the world faces what is perceived as turbulent times, brands can change the conversation, and make an impact. The Pitch Madison Advertising Report 2019 shows that advertising spends in India grew by 14.6 per cent in 2018, and will grow by 16.4 per cent in 2019, taking the ad industry in India to an all-time high of Rs 70,888 crore. These may be small numbers in global comparisons but imagine the size of monies geared towards making society a better place for all.  

As holding company WPP’s global creative director John O’Keefe points out, “If we can do good in this industry, why wouldn’t we?” This thought process may also be the reason why a majority of wins at Cannes Lions in the last three years have been for work that stood for a cause. These varied from gender equality to inclusion and diversity to accessibility and for even something as basic as standing up for truth.  

In 2019 too, Nike’s ad ‘Dream Crazy’ featuring Colin Kaepernick, Gillette’s campaign confronting masculinity, New York Times and Lebanese newspaper An Nahar’s ads for pursuing truth at all costs, initiatives such as Google’s open-source platform that made creative tools, Microsoft Xbox’ accessible gaming control and ‘ThisAbles’ by IKEA for the differently abled, are among the many examples where brands associated with something meaningful.  

Some other examples included Volvo’s Creative Strategy Grand Prix for its E.V.A. Initiative, which opened up 40 years of collision data to other automakers so they may make cars safer for women, since most crash test dummies are modeled after men. FCB/Six’s ‘Go Back to Africa’ reclaimed the meaning of a terrible sentiment. VMLY&R helped buy a porn magazine in Poland just to put it out of business. Both Entertainment for Music Grand Prix winners Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ and Baco Exo do Blues’s ‘Bluesman’  focused on racism, violence, and diversity.  
The only difference in conversation today, from that of two years ago, is brands being reminded that authenticity cannot be faked.

Do Not ‘Trust’ Wash
More than half the consumers surveyed in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust? feel that brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy to sell more product. Only one in five consumers believe that brands keep the best interests of society in mind. In contrast to last year, brands now trail government in terms of consumer expectations to solve social ills, which, according to Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman, is a “truly low bar”.  

The report that was released at Cannes Lions also stated that only one in three consumers trust the brands they buy and that brand trust (81per cent) is a deal breaker or a deciding factor when they’re considering a purchase, trailing only quality (85 per cent), convenience (84 per cent), value (84 per cent) and ingredients (82 per cent).  

Among the most noteworthy who deep dived on the subject for purpose, Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, cautioned that it is time to stop “woke-washing”. He explained woke-washing as brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns that do not back up what the brand says, with what it does. “Purpose-led brands are not just about communication; it’s about taking action,” he says.  

Jope points out that fake purpose threatens to further destroy trust in the industry, when “trust is already in short supply”. Indicating Unilever means business, he said that brands in the Unilever portfolio that did not have a social or sustainability purpose will eventually be divested. Dove and Ben & Jerry’s are on solid ground, he explains, but Caress needs to find a purpose. He also put agencies on notice, informing that Unilever will not work with creative teams that “have a track record of purpose-washing”.

Driving Business Outcomes
Enough research shows that purpose driven brands have fared better in driving business results. Unilever’s latest report shows that the company’s 28 Sustainable Living Brands, including Dove, Knorr, Persil/OMO and Rexona, grew 69 per cent faster than the rest of the business in 2018, compared to 47 per cent in 2017.

Another example is Nike. With its multi-Lions winning ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick late last year, Nike took a cultural marketplace chance but showed its purpose. Its cross-channel TV and video effort won the entertainment for sport Grand Prix Lion at Cannes. Nike’s sales jumped by 31 per cent after this campaign, showing that real purpose pays off.

Earlier in the year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink had said in his annual letter to CEOs that purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign. Fink told executives that 2019 poses the threat of market uncertainty and deteriorating confidence, with some warning “increased risk of a cyclical downturn”, therefore a “commitment to a long-term approach is more important than ever”.
“Purpose is a company’s fundamental reason for being  what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. It is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. It unifies management, employees and communities. It guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of  your company,” the BlackRock CEO says.

Voicing similar advice, Paul Miles, Global Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, ASICS Corp adds, “Purpose has to be a part of everything that you do; it’s not just a marketing thing, it’s not a sales thing, it’s really everything from the production all the way to what you do with that product.”

Pushing Creative Boundaries
There is no denying that everyone associated with the creative and marketing profession is looking for new ways to push creative boundaries. And that there clearly is a fine line between purpose and woke-washing. Purpose must become the North Star driving an organisation.

Many marketing chiefs took the Cannes Lions opportunity to remind the fraternity that the business of advertising itself needs re-inventing. From business-to-consumer, there is a shift to consumer-to-business era where consumers are defining how companies and brands engage with them. This calls for a shift not only in the mindset of practitioners but in the very foundation of how the industry has hitherto functioned.

“You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” observes Julia Goldin, Global Chief Marketing Officer, LEGO Group.

She explains, “Because if you don’t take risks and try new things, you’re never going to be able to evolve. In my personal experience, the more you know, the more you don’t know. Recognising that aspect is very important. You’ve got to be thirsty and hungry enough to learn, and unlearn, and relearn. And be very open, as much as possible, to diversity in wisdom. Because diversity in an organisation brings in all of  that new innovation, excitement, inspiration that we need.”

Advertising used to be about perfection  flawless models, beautiful locations and selling a certain brand of dreams. This is changing. Consumers are looking for authenticity instead. They want brands to partake in providing solutions to the challenges and realities of life for individuals whether it is equality, disability, racism and the likes.

Brands should be ready to solve the problems of purpose and put it to real use.

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