Purpose beyond profit

30th November 2017

Brand building has evolved beyond mere marketing to taking a stance on the world. But is there a point to purpose, or is it just greenwash? David Burrows reports

In May, Heineken caused quite a stir with its ‘Open Your World’ advert in which the brewer tackles how people talk to their political opposites. There is a feminist thrown together with a member of the ‘new right’ and a climate change denier teamed up with an environmentalist, for example. In pairs, they work together to do various tasks before watching videos of their partner’s opposing points of view. But will they leave or thrash out their differences over a beer (Heineken, of course)?

The advert is just one of a number of ‘purpose-based’ marketing campaigns that have left consumers positive and peeved in equal measure. From Pepsi and Unilever to Lloyds Bank and Apple, big corporates are falling over themselves to tell people that, these days, they’re about more than making profit.

“We want to become a brand that is purpose driven, as ultimately this builds trust and is exactly what any customer should expect from a business like ours,” said Tesco CEO Mike Smith earlier this year as he launched the supermarket’s campaign to tackle food waste. Danone boss Emmanuel Faber is another who has been pushing purpose over profit. “A revolution is cooking, what are we going to do about it?” he asked at a Consumer Goods Forum meeting in June, as he spoke of a “broken” food system, the “time bomb” of wealth concentration and the “social injustice” of food inequality.

Are these statements contrived, or do brands really care? Is there a point to purpose, and how is it measured? Or is it just greenwash dreamed up by marketers?

“The days of brand image where you could say one thing and do another are over, and the task for a marketer today is about building brands that people can really believe in,” says Becky Willan, former CSR manager at the Body Shop and co-founder of brand purpose agency Given. “Successful brand building has become more than just product marketing – it’s about having a point of view on the world.”

Indeed, Heineken didn’t go for the well trodden (and safer) promotional path of ‘my beer’s better than yours’. “It showed that it understands this is a divided world and sees its role as helping people to talk to one another,” explains Paulina Lezama, brand and purpose director at creative consultancy Radley Yeldar (RY).

In a survey of corporate leaders by Harvard Business Review Analytics and EY’s Beacon Institute, 89% said a strong sense of purpose drives employee satisfaction. What’s more, 84% said it can affect an organisation’s ability to transform (Faber’s point, above) and 80% believe it helps increase customer loyalty.

This is certainly the case for those brands that have demonstrated a commitment to sustainability, according to research by Nielsen. “They outperform those that don’t,” the analysts reported – sales of goods from sustainable brands increased 4% in 2015, and fell 1% for all the others. They also discovered that 66% of shoppers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products – up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013.

A more recent poll, conducted in the UK, Germany, US and Brazil by data platform CitizenMe and brand consultancy Wolff Olins, found that 41% of people believe companies ‘ought to be a force for positive change’. However, just 13% think businesses have managed it, because of their ‘preoccupation with profits’. What consumers say and what they do can be very different, especially when it comes to buying greener products, but there is something going on.

Unilever has claimed there’s a £853bn opportunity for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear; a third of consumers already buy from brands based on their social and environmental impact. Millennials are a particular target for those promoting purpose – social or environmental, global or local.

In fact, the trend towards uncovering purpose among established brands like Heineken and Unilever is in the most part a response to the success of new brands and start-ups that have emerged with a fully formed mission, says B&B Studio strategy director Lisa Desforges. “It’s a generational thing,” she explains. “These are millennial brands started by millennial entrepreneurs that reflect the needs and desires of millennial consumers. These brands understood the emerging desire for a more socially conscious approach to consumerism because their founders felt it too.”

That doesn’t mean established brands can’t have a purpose beyond profit, though. Desforges adds: “When Nike speaks out about racial diversity, it feels relevant for an urban sportswear brand. When Jigsaw defends immigration [as in its current high-profile campaign], it’s in line with what British fashion and style really means.”

In other words: purpose is an almost effortless part of the brand. Another example is Wonderbra, which is in the business of self-confidence for women rather than selling lingerie. Likewise, motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson exists to provide freedom and help men rebel, which begs the question: does purpose have to deliver social good?

This is a concept that Richard Storey, global chief strategy officer at M&C Saatchi, has been grappling with. He’s come to the conclusion that marketers have begun conflating the notion of ‘purpose’ with the idea of ‘social good’. Brands need to be good in the sense of exceptional, outstanding and unusual – but not necessarily in the sense of worthwhile, righteous and valuable.

Mark Ritson, marketing professor and columnist for Marketing Week magazine, has a similar view: he supports all the viewpoints expressed in the Heineken ad (transgender rights, feminism and climate change), but “doesn’t see what this has to do with Heineken”.

Florence Touzé, author of Marketing, Lost Illusions: Let’s Move on to a More Respectable Approach, and professor at the Audencia Business School, feels that big brands risk distancing the business from its original mission. “They should perhaps steer clear of such vast subjects,” she tells me.

Pepsi will no doubt wish it had. The drinks manufacturer’s latest campaign video featured model Kendall Jenner, who, coming across the scene of a protest (seemingly designed to reference the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans during a Black Lives Matter protest last year), offers one of the police officers a can of cola. It was widely criticised for “co-opting the imagery of protest movements to sell soda”, as the Guardian put it. The ad was pulled. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise.”

In a world where bad news spreads fast and thick, brands that jump on the purpose bandwagon too early can be in for a bumpy ride. Storey at Saatchi says he often has to give companies a “reality check” when they come in seeking a purpose. Others seem to have similar experiences. Becci Gould, senior account director at Kin&Co, a global culture and communications consultancy, says she and her colleagues are “quite strict” about how they advise their clients – which include the likes of TripAdvisor and O2. “The worst thing you can do is ask your brand or PR agency to come up with your purpose,” she warns.

Purpose can’t be rolled out like an IT system – it’s more emotional, suggests one expert, but that doesn’t mean it’s immeasurable. Every year for the past three years, RY has produced a ‘fit-for-purpose index’, which lists the top 100 brands that are best-placed to put purpose into practice. The analysis covers everything from whether the purpose addresses a human or world need to how it’s championed by the CEO and filtered to every corner of the business – think of the Nasa janitor, who, when asked by John F. Kennedy what he was doing, responded with “Well, Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

Unilever (89%) came top of the index, followed by Lloyds Banking Group (88%) and Philips (86%). What set the first 10 apart is that they’ve established key performance indicators, metrics and targets against the purpose. Indeed, one of the big criticisms of purpose is that it can’t be measured. However, this must be at the heart of it all – without measurement, the brand has no credibility.

Tom Cumberlege, an associate director at the Carbon Trust, puts it like this: “It’s great for a business to have an environmental purpose – on carbon emissions, for example. But the crunch is whether its targets are aligned with those the world is trying to achieve through the Paris Agreement. If not, then surely that’s not purposeful.”

RY’s Lezama insists the companies that “get it” are growing in number. They’re trying to use their resources to do something better, she says, and gathering the evidence to prove it. “They’re trying to inject the credibility the private sector needs,” she adds, “and, as the penny drops, it feels like companies are being a lot more genuine.” That doesn’t mean they can’t still make a profit, though.

David burrows is a freelance journalist


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Weather damage insurance claims hit record high

Weather-related damage to homes and businesses saw insurance claims hit a record high in the UK last year following a succession of storms.

18th April 2024

Read more

The Scottish government has today conceded that its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 is now “out of reach” following analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

18th April 2024

Read more

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has issued a statement clarifying that no changes have been made to its stance on offsetting scope 3 emissions following a backlash.

16th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close