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‘Brand purpose is more than social responsibility’

FMCG giant, Unilever, is a master marketer and advertiser. In recent years it has pioneered the concept of ‘brand purpose’, and where the giant leads, most others tend to follow. This commentator on Campaignlive’s website is not so impressed with this arching marketing approach of equating purpose with worthiness.

They say that with great power comes great responsibility.

This is clearly something Keith Weed (above) takes pretty seriously. In the same week that his “great power” was confirmed by being voted the world’s most influential Chief Marketing Office, his company Unilever sought to display “great responsibility” by spearheading a drive to “un-stereotype” advertising at Cannes.

It’s this kind of industry-wide leadership that no doubt cemented Weed’s status. Having the biggest budgets is one thing, but what really counts is an appetite for driving change that spreads to other organisations, and in this regard he stands alone.

I just hope this crusade goes better than his last one.

You see, the thing about this power-responsibility stuff is that good intentions aren’t enough. Sometimes you can wreak havoc even if you try to do everything right, and nobody in marketing has proved this more in the past few years than Weed. His principal crime? The promotion of brand “purpose”.

Counter-intuitively, the increasing focus on “purpose” – at least as Weed and his acolytes have defined it – is leading not to a diversification of brands, but in fact a homogenisation.

Now, the word “purpose” is pretty important in business. Literally it means “the reason something exists”, and it’s probably fair to say that every company could do with one of those. If you don’t have a reason to exist then you are by definition pointless, which naturally isn’t a great marketing platform. Better purposes mean better businesses – more useful, more insightful, more unique.

You would think therefore that the industry should be indebted to the man who spearheaded the “purpose movement”. Logically his legacy would be an explosion of differentiation and innovation, as each business tries to carve out its unique place on this earth, in ever more creative and helpful ways.

Alas no.

Counter-intuitively, the increasing focus on “purpose” – at least as Weed and his acolytes have defined it – is leading not to a diversification of brands, but in fact a homogenisation. Rather than prompting brands to think about their markets differently, it is in fact leading them to cluster around a handful of common spaces.

What gives?

It all comes down to definition. In short, “purpose” no longer means “the reason something exists”. Instead it has been recast as a synonym for “social responsibility”.

Becoming “purposeful” doesn’t now mean identifying a unique value that can be brought to the world. It simply means becoming more sustainable. Or maybe supporting disadvantaged communities. Or celebrating diversity.

Or indeed promoting any worthy cause that can draw attention away from the organisation’s core identity and genuine purpose, which, chances are, is something they’re not quite so proud of.

Weed proposes that brands with purpose deliver growth. Yup, hard to disagree with that given that, as discussed earlier, the alternative is being pointless. However he then goes on to equate that purpose with sustainability – as if Unilever and all the brands in its portfolio exist only for this cause.

If that’s the case, they might as well pack up and go home. Clearly Unilever have competitors in each of their categories that are well ahead of them in the sustainability game.

It’s hard to see how brands like Axe and Persil can compete with purer competitors such as Lush and Ecover in that space. Weed made the error of equating purpose with worthiness and in doing so seemingly forgot what his brands are really for.

Thanks to his influence this error has now become so common as to be the norm, thus rendering the word “purpose” essentially useless.

Now, this doesn’t mean social responsibility is not a worthwhile ambition. Naturally every organisation should endeavour to be as responsible as possible. It’s just that with a handful of exceptions this is not the core purpose of the majority of brands…..

Campaignlive.co.uk: Read the full article

Related reading:

Unilever’s Keith Weed: brands with purpose deliver growth

Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, on why sustainability is the only reliable business model….

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