The purpose of ‘purpose’

There’s an endless debate going on about ‘Brands with Purpose’ and I can’t help adding to it, even though a lot of the coverage is profoundly annoying.  A rare voice of sense on the subject is Nigel Hollis’s blog for research company Millward Brown.  In a recent post he addresses the seemingly gratuitous nature of many recent award-winning case studies.  This year’s Cannes Festival was awash with celebrated campaigns which are very beautiful and which address crucial social problems but appear to have nothing to do with marketing, or indeed business.  These include the Grand Prix winner ‘Fearless Girl‘, a statue created by McCann for State Street Global Advisors (who?) designed to help inspire more women to leadership positions.

girl

The problem (or one of many problems) with this is that nobody knows who the brand is responsible for this work so it can’t yield the brand any benefit.  That’s fine if it’s an act of philanthropy, but it’s not – or if it is then why is it entered into awards for excellence in marketing communications?

Hollis says purpose-led campaigns can deliver a good ROI provided they follow three basic principles:

  1. Identify how the campaign will help the brand make more money.
  2. Address a tension or issue meaningful to the target audience.
  3. Ensure the purpose fits what the brand can/does stand for and offers opportunity to differentiate.

This seems enormously sensible to me.  What’s more, it gives me an irresistible desire to recount the story of an early, largely unsung precursor to these campaigns.

In the early 90s, Texaco was struggling to compete with the more established brands, particularly BP and Shell, who were part of the British way of life, whereas Texaco had the image of ‘A visiting American’.  The new Chairman dismissed the proposed retail campaign and demanded the agency create something that put Texaco on the map.  Desperate to impress, the two sister agencies DMB&B and IMP created a wonderful campaign ‘Children Should be Seen and Not Hurt’.

The company gave away, free reflective and fluorescent stickers from their forecourts.

Hollis’s principles could hardly be more apposite:

It made money because it attracted people to the retail site and a proportion inevitably took the opportunity to make a purchase.  For some it even sparked the habit of using that forecourt regularly.  It also addressed Texaco’s corporate reputation issue in that it presented them as ‘part of the fabric of society’ as the Chairman had prescribed.

It addressed a meaningful issue – road casualties among children was (and is) a hot topic and enormously emotive.  Research by the road safety laboratories showed that improving conspicuity (visibility) was the best way to reduce the number of accidents, which was in turn the best way to reduce casualties.

It was relevant to the brand because – as research indicated – people saw fuel retailers as ‘part of the problem’ along with car manufacturers and road administrators.

Research also showed how, even all those years ago, there was a very grown up response to this kind of initiative.  It was clearly ‘marketing’ because it invited you to go to a forecourt.  But it was also clearly ‘doing good’ because it was giving away free materials which might save a life.  The net effect on the brand was positive because on balance, even to the cynics, it was a n initiative that you wanted to succeed.  That’s the bit that seems to be missing in much of the more gratuitous, modern award-winning ‘purpose’ work.

We didn’t call it ‘purpose’ in those days, we called it marketing.  So next time you tell your friends what a good idea Volvo’s ‘Life Paint’ is, remember, Texaco did it first.

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Nice. But what’s the strategy?

 

It seems ultra churlish to criticise the work Grey has done for the UNHCR.  But I’m going to anyway.

It’s a nice film highlighting the IOC team of ‘Stateless’ refugee Olympians.  It’s a good cause – these are people who have endured extreme hardships and it’s great to see them celebrated in this way.  Isn’t it?  Well yes but….

Let’s be hard-headed about this for a moment.  What is the film looking to achieve?  It must have cost a couple of hundred grand to make.  So, what’s the ROI?  The words ‘sign the petition’ appear on screen for most of the duration.  What petition?  And what will the petition achieve?  What am I supposed to do?  How will that help?  How many refugees will enjoy a better life because of our response?

In the old world where we talked about advertising, sometimes we also talked about objectives and strategy.  Bit old fashioned now.  We sometimes used a shorthand “get..to ..by”.

Embarking on a  communications campaign, a neat start point was to describe the strategy  in this way; get (a group of people, typically defined in a way to identify what makes them our target) to (take a particular action – like maybe buy our stuff, make a donation, put us on their shopping list) by (effecting a change – like shifting their opinions or telling them something they didn’t know already in a way that provokes a change in behaviour).

When you watch a piece of content, it should be possible, with a little imagination, to work backwards and post-rationalise the get-to-by behind it.  That’s where the UNHCR film – like so many well-intentioned campaigns for good causes – fails.  There’s nothing I’m going to do as a result of watching this film which will improve the plight of refugees, nothing that will strengthen UNHCR’s hand in improving their lot and nothing that will contribute to covering the substantial costs of making that film.  Sorry, it’s an indulgence.

It’s made worse by the fact that Grey has a bit of previous here.  Grey Singapore’s I SEA app  won a Cannes Lion this summer but caused sufficient outrage to make them return it to the organisers.  It was described as “an app that crowd-sources the search of the sea for migrants by giving access to the satellite image of the sea to smartphone users.” But if you logged on, there was nothing there.  Nothing.  It appeared to be a nice idea, but the reality was bogus.