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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