Joseph Baladi
Jan 5, 2015

Brand purpose: Time for agencies to put up or shut up

Brands and agencies talk a lot about the importance of brand purpose. So where is all the purpose-driven messaging?

Joseph Baladi
Joseph Baladi

“Brand Purpose”: The idea that commercial products and services can and, arguably, should mirror the equivalent ideal human pursuit of meaning and relevance is compelling. Virtually every advertising agency advocates purpose as a platform for building strong brands. Some have even publicly declared the death of “positioning” in favour of the more human dimension purpose seductively offers.

So given the fervent, even pious, support brand purpose enjoys among almost all advertising agencies, it is at the very least curious and arguably paradoxical, that not enough purpose-driven messaging is getting through to consumers. The vast majority of advertising campaigns—everywhere—continue to mostly not explicitly communicate purpose (or dimensions of it).

Closer scrutiny reveals two issues. Firstly, many advertising executives actually struggle to understand the broader conceptual intent of purpose, if the endless PowerPoint presentations that define purpose as “…the reason your brand exists” and leave it at that are any measure to go by. As for those who do get it—particularly planners and creative directors—they find it difficult to actually integrate it into the communications strategies they create for their clients.

One of the reasons for this is that purpose-based messaging fundamentally conflicts with what the creative community has been addicted to for decades: the pursuit of the “big idea”. To be fair it is not all that difficult to understand a reluctance to abandon an approach that has built some of the world’s most powerful and compelling brands, known to and enjoyed by untold millions. It is a difficult habit to shake, particularly in that it has almost single-handedly defined what it takes to arrest attention and precipitate purchase.

But here is the thing. “Big ideas” rely on consumer insights that theoretically provide “ahhh moments” to consumers: ideas, images and situations that resonate with us while at the same time providing a frame of relevance for the brand. In the early days it was all about unique selling propositions that focused almost entirely on attributes and functional benefits. Over time, recognizing the increasing sophistication of consumers—particularly in developed markets—advertising ideas began to focus more on emotional dimensions.

To be sure, these approaches remain relevant. It’s still important to talk about product attributes and performance, particularly when improvements through innovation are created. And it makes all the sense in the world to create emotional scenarios that touch people’s hearts, or entertain them or engage them in ways that either trigger or reinforce behaviour learnt from insights.

But ahhh moments tend to be either time- or circumstance-specific. The very definition of an advertising “campaign” reveals the temporary relevance of most of these insightful moments. In other words, what might be relevant about consumers lives or habits or interests at one point in time may not necessarily remain relevant over time. Hence the continuous generation of new campaigns for brands that reflect ever changing or newer insights. Whether driven by “big ideas” or not, most of the advertising advertising agencies create is, in fact, tactical. Relatively speaking, most of it facilitates short-term selling, not brand-building.

Many in the agency fold argue that bigger, broader and more enduring themes that build brands lie in “branding campaigns” that clients are simply unwilling to invest enough in. This is partly true and as such redirects the onus back on advertisers to review and either increase budgets or re-distribute existing resources.

But that does not change the industry’s addiction to the “big idea” and its reticence to create more purpose-driven strategies. At the risk of using a tired cliché, the world has changed. And it is telling that planners in particular have responded only to specific manifestations of this change. Like Big Data, for example, where a great deal of effort goes into tracking mountains of interrelated data to analyse consumer habits and influence behaviour. Whilst this has emerged as a critically important new driver of brand strategy (the “how”), it has not greatly resulted in more purpose-centric messaging—the “why”.

Planners and creative directors need to recognize that the world has most dramatically changed for people not just in terms of what interests them, but in terms of what concerns them. So much so in fact, that it amounts to nothing short of a paradigm shift. People, today, give primacy to how companies and brands behave.

There are exceptions to be sure. But these tend to mostly and predictably reflect a small group of usual suspects. For every Coke ad that “talks” about positivity and for every Nike commercial that encourages us to believe that there is an athlete in all of us, there are legions of other ads for these same and other brands that continue to not explicitly talk about purpose. To be sure, the actual absence of any genuinely purposeful intent by these brands (which is quickly becoming unsustainable) is the reason in many cases. But for many more, the reason will lie in not just corporate inertia, but also a reluctance, if perhaps not refusal, by advertising agencies to step out of their comfort zones, recognize the new messaging imperative and talk explicitly about purpose rather than dance around the subject or ignore it altogether.

Joseph Baladi ([email protected]) is a principal of BrandAsian and is the author of The Brutal Truth About Asian Branding (Wiley).


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