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.


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.


Don’t ask me

Sometimes research can be your worst enemy.  “How so?” I hear you cry.

Consider this example.  Many newspapers are confronted with a conundrum.  More people are reading the paper (mostly online), but fewer people are buying it (paper edition).  Revenue falls while the demand for more content continues to rise.  One response is the pay wall.  But this threatens to marginalise your title and it appears to give other free offers a big advantage.  The Guardian’s response has been to appeal for voluntary contributions through different levels of ‘membership’.


Given the paper’s history and its loyal following among those who share a broadly liberal ideology (myself very much included) this seems pretty sensible.

But, if we look a bit further, here’s the ‘rationale offered to prospective members:


Let me draw your attention to the bit about revenues falling fast.  Behavioural economics and the writings of Mark Earls (‘Herdmeister’) give us some clear learning around this.  Telling people that others, like them, are deserting the paper in their droves is the worst thing you could possibly say.  Much better to say that more and more people are subscribing online.

There’s a significant body of experimental evidence for this.  Richard Shotton quotes a fab example from the Arizona national park, in which visitors were taking away start wood in alarming quantities.  The park authorities set up an observed section and tested three approaches: i) said lots of other people were taking wood home and this was depleting the area so please don’t take wood home ii) said most people don’t take wood home, so please don’t you take wood home either and iii) control saying nothing.  The second approach asking people to fall in with ‘herd’ behaviour was by far the most successful Indeed approach (i) actually seemed to encourage the taking of wood.  This result is echoed in lots of other studies.

So why is The Guardian – a smart operation with sophisticated marketing – getting it so seemingly wrong?

I would venture to suggest it’s because they have relied on asking people questions – using market research.  I know this is true because I have been a respondent in some of this research too.

In short, if you ask people what to do, they will give the common sense answer.  If you want me (and others like me, who support you) to remedy this revenue problem, it seems sensible to explain the situation and, because we want the same thing, we’ll offer our help – we’ll subscribe.  But we won’t.  because behaviour doesn’t follow those rules.  Marketing doesn’t work by explaining what I need you to do which prompts you to behave accordingly.  People don’t act to maximise their utility and they don’t do what you ask them to do – at least not directly.  It’s oblique.  The world of brands and marketing doesn’t make sense if you treat people as rational utility-maximising agents.  Most of the world’s most successful brands wouldn’t exist (and we’d be poorer for it).

Sadly, modern marketers seem to be using market research as a simple mechanism for asking people their opinions.  What’s needed is a proper model of influence – a set of hypotheses around which stimulus will provoke what response. Then, based on the answers we get to our questions, we diagnose the solution.  We don’t simply ask people what to do then do it.

I do hope the Guardian gets over this myopia.  We’d be much poorer without it.


Pitching? Bitching.

There’s no intention here to embarrass anybody, so we’ll keep it incognito.  One of the reputable pharmaceutical marketing magazines recently ran an article on the current state of play in how marketing clients ask their advertising agencies to pitch for new business accounts.  One page was penned by an ad agency manager and the other by a senior marketer from a big, respectable pharma company.

In the piece, the marketer (no name, no pack drill) wrote:

“Brand teams expect agencies to quickly understand their brands, their market and their challenges – and often this is just from a brief.  This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”

I do recognise this, from working on the agency side.  The reality is worth describing in a bit more depth.  When he says “this is just from brief” the reality is that the agency typically receives a three page word document by email, which includes none of the important information.  No competitive context.  No examples of the prevailing work in the category.  No market share or sales data.  No understanding of the target market.  No smart objectives.  No strategy as any strategist would describe it.  No brand positioning.  No budget.  In fact the brief is typically an exercise in box ticking.  It may sometimes be accompanied by a background document describing a recent research project – minus the context and purpose. And the quality of research in pharma marketing is a whole other rant, I’m not even going to get started on here.

If there was a GCSE qualification in writing agency briefs, most clients – on the evidence of the last few dozen – would fail.

“Just from a brief”.  No face to face meeting.  Think about that.  I’ve been a client.  I want to get to know my agency partners; we’re going to work closely together, I need to share a bond and I need to trust them as people as well as vendors.  The idea of selecting agencies to pitch without ever having met them seems to me completely bananas.  There may be a telephone Q&A, but this isn’t much help because diaries dictate that it can’t happen until half way through the pitch period, when it’s too late to go back and start again.  The first time any of the human beings involved will get to meet is in the theatrical, highly charged and politicised arena of “the big pitch presentation” (which is itself a questionable way to impart their ideas, but that’s another issue).

Typically the agency is required to come back in three weeks with a fully planned out and costed strategic presentation, creative recommendations, channel thinking, personnel assigned and so on.

The pitch may involve taking the team (it’s always important to field the people who will actually work on the business) to a foreign venue for the presentation, at considerable expense, which is never reimbursed, win or lose.

The actual budget for the project is not disclosed – so it’s impossible to know how much it’s sensible for the agency to invest in the pitch, because they can’t know the likely revenue.

And another thing (voice become a little shrill now).  After the agencies’ three weeks is up, there’s six weeks allocated for market research to “evaluate” (don’t get me started – that has its own rant all stored up for another time) the ideas.

“Doesn’t seem fair” hardly cuts it – but that isn’t really the point”  It’s simply unprofessional.  It’s not about fairness, it’s about competence and quality.  What really matters is that this kind of pitch process is highly unlikely to generate good ideas, good strategy or good long-term relationships.

But sadly, this process has become the norm.  And because the agency market is hugely over crowded and competitive, they will keep quiet and do their best, with little or no complaint.

If the client said “I’m not going to train my people to any level of competence. This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations” Would that be acceptable?

How about this: “I’m not going to have a coherent strategy and I won’t set any realistic objectives. This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”

Ok well how about this one: “I’m not going to put any one person in charge of making decisions.  This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”.

Hmm, actually all those things might ………stop right there, don’t get distracted.

I’m bound to add that these opinions are not those of my current or former employers.  All our clients are simply lovely.

The ultimate masturbation?

The advertising trade magazine Campaign has rebranded and relaunched, incorporating its sister titles ‘Media Week,’ ‘Brand Republic’ and ‘Marketing’.


The relaunch has involved a painful volume of self-publicity.  In today’s issue we learn….

The “Proud parents” campaign stars some of the industry’s most respected marketers and their agency partners, together with icons from the standout work they have created together. The campaign underlines the brand’s positioning as the premium platform for the new breed of brand-builder, offering inspiration, opinion and analysis for marketers, agencies and media owners that invest in creative excellence to grow their businesses.

There’s a video, of course.  And a ‘making of’ film.  There’s daily bulletin at the top of the news feed.

So here’s an advertising campaign about an advertising campaign for a publication which essentially publicises other people’s advertising campaigns.  If that’s not circular then I don’t know what is.

I actually like advertising and I’m bored with it.  I can only imagine how more balanced people with a healthier perspective must regard it.  Let’s be polite and say it’s a bit inward looking.


More woe for Coe


Big sponsorship news today is that, according to reports, Adidas is withdrawing its sponsorship of the World athletics governing body IAAF, because of the recent doping scandals.  That’s quite interesting.  Adidas, who are the first name on IAAF’s list of global partners, appear to have broken their ties three years before their fixed term contract expires.  What’s more interesting is that this is the same Adidas who still sponsor FIFA to the tune of much larger sums, despite the fact that most of FIFA’s executive committee is either under arrest or under investigation for corruption.  How damning is that?  IAAF is now a more toxic brand than FIFA.  Wow.  That’s damning.

It does give an insight into what it is the sponsor is actually buying with these partnerships.  The difference here is that FIFA may have become a byword for malpractice, but football itself is still a hugely attractive proposition.  Nobody supported their team any less enthusiastically this weekend because of the governing body falling ever further into disrepute.  In contrast the doping scandal in athletics calls the sport itself into question.  If your favourite athlete won a medal at the last Olympics or World Championships, you may now be wondering whether that was actually legitimate – or was it drug-fuelled?  Some athletes are calling for their performances to be upgraded retrospectively because they were beaten in major championships by ‘drug cheats’ – even though the cheating only came to light later.  It’s all up in the air.

Add to that the fact that athletics is nowhere near as attractive as a commercial proposition as football, in any case, and you can see why Adidas has concluded the positives no longer outweigh the negatives to justify a marketing investment.

What a tragedy after the sport was in the ascendancy after the fabulous London Olympics in 2012.   Lord Coe, the new President of the IAAF, will need all his powers of resilience to get back into credit. For the moment, the future looks bleak.

Frankie says “Go to Protein World”


Protein World eh?  What’s that all about?  The whole (non-protein) world – and possibly beyond – is outraged by this evil, sexist diatribe by the monsters at Protein World.  Their poster advertising is so sexist as to be, well, splutter, really really sexist.  So there.  As Father Ted would have said: “Down with this sort of thing”.

If people had read the more grown up marketing press twenty years ago they would have found Roderick White,  Editor of Admap explaining, in a ‘best practice’ paper, how to get more out of a limited advertising budget.  As I recall (it was a long time ago) he identified three proven strategies. 1) Target a very niche group.  2) Generate huge talkability (now understood as ‘going viral’ or 3) Get your ad banned.  Ahhh, now I get it.

The same used to be true for singles and the music chart – would Frankie Goes to Hollywood have been so popular if their biggest single ‘Relax’ hadn’t been banned?

They’re laughing at you.  The publicity generated by Protein World has multiplied the marketing spend many times over, probably many dozens, even hundreds of times over.  I saw the marketing Director of Protein World being interviewed on television for goodness sake.  Protein World – a brand I had never heard of until a month ago.

I say congratulations to the marketing team.  Still a bit evil though.  I know we shouldn’t be encouraging this kind of thing.  But you have to admire the marketing chutzpah.

And if you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this……