Back in October, Unilever, which had until then been the bastion of purposeful business, appeared to cool off on the concept.
On a results call with investors, Unilever’s CEO, Hein Schumacher, said
purpose can be an “unwelcome distraction” for some brands and “irrelevant” for others.
Schumacher added that the company had been guilty of force-fitting purpose in every brand at times, and set out a new strategy to deliver “faster growth” after admitting the FMCG had “underperformed” in recent times. At the same time, he stressed that this wouldn't be a total about-face on purpose:
“Our focus on purpose is laudable and it inspires many people to join and stay with Unilever, so we must never lose it. When done well, and with credibility, [brand purpose] can be highly effective,” he said, pointing to examples like Dove and Lifebuoy. “But we will not force fit this across the entire portfolio, for some brands it simply won’t be relevant and that’s okay,” he added.
Schumacher's comments sparked debate among marketers around the increased focus on purpose in recent years. Some bemoaned that brands have become too worthy, losing their sense of humour and questioned why simple consumer products like mayonnaise need a social purpose. Meanwhile, others felt now, given all the macro global issues, purpose has never been more necessary and that cooling off might be perceived as ditching purpose for profit.
It's fair to say that purpose-driven brands have taken a bit of a knock in recent times. Among the companies that have faced criticism for taking a stance on social issues are Dr Martens, NatWest, Bud Light, and Costa Coffee. Social media backlash was directed at all of them for being "woke," or for adopting positions on ethical matters that were perceived as being inconsistent with the views of the majority of their customers.
Even Ben & Jerry's, the poster child for brand purpose, received harsh criticism in 2021 for refusing to sell ice cream in areas of the West Bank under Israeli occupation. Since then, the company has sold its business in Israel and has refrained from commenting on the most recent escalation of hostilities in the area.
Customers are also becoming less trusting of the idea of purposeful business in general, since more and more businesses are being accused of social washing and/or greenwashing.
So, can purpose and the notion of brands doing social good still work without seeming like a hollow marketing exercise? Especially when brands flirt with the idea of purpose, but then ditch it when it doesn't deliver hopes for growth?
Campaign asked those in the industry to weigh in on the future of brands and purpose, and whether or not Unilever's decision to reassess its position is a good idea.
Chief strategy officer, Publicis Groupe APAC
"In recent years brands have become ever-more worthy. I dread to think how many hours our industry has collectively spent in ‘purpose workshops’ with the obligatory Patagonia and Dove case studies, and some data points about Gen Z’s love of causes. Who in the awards jury room wants to be the one to speak out against work that’s claiming to solve the woes of humanity? So, alas, corporate virtue-signalling has become the norm.
Of course, for brands where there’s an authentic and credible connection, a bigger cause can provide a powerful North Star and can make a genuine positive impact to be proud of. Which is great. But when marketing creates a ‘purpose’, it’s almost by definition, nothing of the sort. As Bud Lite and Unilever have come to acknowledge, most brands’ actual reason for existence is to help direct us to a delicious cold beer, fragrant clean laundry and the alike.
Personally, I can’t help feeling there’s definitely something increasingly disingenuous, self-serving and grubby about brands and agencies still attempting to draw ever more tenuous connections with doing good.
I also feel this virtuous bandwagon has been creatively detrimental. Firstly, brands' distinctiveness and tonality has often been sacrificed in favour of a homogenous, high-minded sincerity.
Secondly (but perhaps, most importantly), we’ve forgotten the unwritten contract with our audience when we create communications; that, in return for a moment of their attention, we offer them a bit of reward in the form of entertainment. A bit of levity, joy and amusement.
That’s why across APAC we are helping our client’s brands to double-down on being themselves. The work we’re most proud of isn’t self-absorbed with dogmatic do-gooding, instead it has energy, confidence and fun at its core."
Founder and managing director, Think HQ
"To be clear, a lot of talk about purpose over the last five years or so has been about a marketing position, not a business-wide commitment to positive social impact. So, it’s of absolutely no surprise that many brands will wind back on the idea of purpose, as they explore alternate market positioning that aligns with the tougher economic times. If anything, now is the time to actually see who is for real, and who was just spinning purpose to sell more stuff.
Of course not every brand needs to have an overt purpose or strive to do social good. I would love it if that was the case, but let’s face it—in a modern capitalist society, people are free (within the confines of the law) to create and sell whatever product they choose. That said, with the rise of conscious capitalism and the ESG movement, businesses need to make a choice about whether they care about the impact their business has on the world, or not. If they genuinely care about the impact, then they have a genuine purpose to do good."
Partner at TRA
"If rowing back on purpose means pulling back on making disingenuous claims, puffing up social good beyond it’s real impact, then customers will welcome that. But I think the comments from Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher are not a criticism of either purpose for social good nor for purpose marketing per se. What he is highlighting is the need to do it when appropriate, make it relevant and be authentic. Unpicking his comments, common sense and good marketing are the messages we should take out rather than an overarching criticism of purpose-based marketing."
Head of strategy, Virtue APAC
"Not all brands need to save the world. While all corporations are expected to give back to society, perhaps, a more meaningful contribution is for them to creatively deliver real, long-lasting usefulness via their brands, products, services and experiences.
Hyper-pragmatism will be a defining attribute of tomorrow’s generation—young people are two times more likely to pay attention to how a product was made, than what its mission or purpose is.
Gen Z is looking for brands who aren’t just speaking to them emotionally via a lofty purpose, but making the things they need possible, and delivering real solutions. Beyond purpose, practicality and utility will drive purchase decisions.
We are shifting towards a more considered era of consumption, pushing against excessive consumerism and meaningless upgrades. Young people are checking in with themselves before checking out with a purchase—77% of young people are asking themselves “Do I really need this?” before making a purchase; 45% of young people in APAC describe their shopping habits as slow-consumption.
In this context of slower and more intentional consumption, purpose-driven marketing has a bigger role to play than ever, vis-a-vis short-term promotional tactics that potentially pressure consumers to buy unnecessarily.
However, brand purpose needs to evolve beyond simply what it says about the brand, to what it says about the audience that buys into the brand. People are looking for brands/products that align with their values, purpose they personally relate to, and initiatives they can champion and participate in."
Chairman and chief creative officer, BBDO India
"People are looking for meaning. Some call it purpose. For us it’s about getting to the soul of the consumer. To find the right context, so that the brand stays relevant and can truly make a difference to people’s lives. This cannot be seasonal or change every year. It’s a commitment. It’s got to be true and consistent.
The question to ask is: What gives the brand the moral and emotional authority to say what it is saying? The brand needs to lead by action first. It’s a brand doing things, not saying things. In today’s world it’s about acts, not ads."
General manager of Sustain by TBWA
"The foremost priority for a brand should be credibility and authenticity, ensuring that any alignment with societal issues has a clear and organic connection to the brand's identity. Otherwise, it risks being perceived as a superficial or tokenistic gesture, leaving consumers confused about the brand's motives.
Traditionally, marketers have heavily emphasised short-term growth and KPIs. However, the shift towards sustainability and purpose-driven marketing isn't merely a trend; it's a fundamental pivot in consumer behaviour and expectations as the world’s resources become more finite. Marketers must recognise that this shift represents the beginning of a new race—a marathon focused on long-term strategies that align with evolving consumer values."
Chief strategy & experience officer, Clemenger BBDO
"The problem with the whole purpose debate is that it got captured somehow into what brands say (i.e. their advertising) as opposed to what they do (i.e. their business strategy). Maybe like Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia, communicating your purpose drives hella profit (because it comes from core business strategy). So, why change that? But where the likes of P&G and Unilever are rowing back purpose-driven comms is in FMCG categories and for brands that neither need nor command the mental real estate to make purpose a big enough reason for us to choose or switch to them. Or, let’s face it, were not born from a big, world-changing purpose anyway.
Dish washing liquid, biscuits, razor blades... My view is that when it comes to categories like these, we are entering a post-purpose world where we expect the Unilevers and the P&Gs of the world to not be f---ing the planet up, and so, what I really need is simple, benefit-led advertising that gives me a way to remember those brands when I’m faced with twenty of them on shelf.
The role advertising can play for those brands is—on the whole—to create awareness and fame that helps drive sales.
The role the corporation behind those brands can play is to positively impact the community.
They are two different things and despite what the clickbaity headlines suggest, the two can coexist.
And herein lies the decision tree: Does your business have a point of view on how its existence helps society, or even moves it forward, with the tangible actions to make it happen?
If yes, feel free to say so. If not, don’t."