With increasing attention given to climate change and individual and institutional challenges such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), more marketers want to align their brands with positive outcomes for society and the environment. Indeed, purpose was one of the major themes throughout the latest Campaign 360 conference in Singapore.
But purpose can’t be applied blindly; consumers are savvy and can spot when it isn’t authentic. During an invitation-only roundtable hosted by Campaign Asia and GroupM’s Mindshare at Campaign 360, marketing leaders from across APAC discussed how brands can activate meaningfully around causes that align with their core values across diverse markets — and how a solid sense of purpose can make a positive contribution to society and their bottom line.
As Campaign Asia’s managing director Atifa Silk points out, “While it’s great that consumers are mindful of environmental and social issues and both expect and demand an ever-widening range of sustainability-related products and services to choose from, new challenges have surfaced as Asia strives to become a champion of purpose.”
Diversity in Asia: challenge and opportunity
To better understand the nuances and complexities that exist in the region, Mindshare has developed proprietary research that examines consumer attitudes towards purpose-led marketing across 14 diverse markets in APAC. Underpinned by Mindshare’s Good Growth conviction and built around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, The Geography of Purpose study reinforces the importance of understanding the different motivations in each market in order to win the trust of consumers.
Rohan Lightfoot, Mindshare’s chief growth officer, APAC, began by highlighting how crucial local context is when brands craft their stance around purpose. “The Geography of Purpose study reveals an enormous diversity of view in the region such as the deep cynicism of consumers in Japan, South Korea and Australia, where a substantial percentage of respondents (48%, 28%, and 33% respectively) said they do not believe brands are genuinely trying to improve society. In contrast, consumers in some Southeast Asia countries, including Indonesia (10%), Philippines (7%) and Vietnam (5%), evinced real positivity.”
Mindshare’s APAC CEO Helen McRae, adds, “For those of us who work in global organisations, a lot of the thinking behind purpose comes from the West, which may miss out on some of the innate optimism in parts of Asia-Pacific. But again, it’s important to note that there is diversity even within regions.”
What’s more, not all brands claiming to be purpose-driven are acting in that way, leading to charges of greenwashing or inauthenticity. “Purpose has become quite polarised and politicised as a concept,” says McRae. “Which in some cases takes it far, far away from the actual business. When that happens. your purpose is not going to resonate, it’s not going to be realistic, and you're not going to have a buy-in both internally or from your consumers, because it feels too far from what you are actually selling.”
As advertising has shifted, in part, from persuading people to buy more goods and services based on their functionality to lifestyle choices, marketers have become some of the main cultural purveyors of truthfulness or the lack thereof. To safeguard and minimise the risk of damage to brand reputation, Angelyn Varkey, senior director, Asia Pacific at British-American multinational professional services firm Aon, says, “marketers should actively incorporate risk considerations into their purpose and branding strategies to mitigate the risk of failing customer expectations and losing trust.”
That begs the question of whether a one-size-fits-all approach to purpose-driven marketing can ever work, and if so, what strategies should be embraced to make it effective in terms of authenticity and return on investment.
In brands we trust
“Some companies define their purpose at a basic level, such as the functional use of their products and services,” says José Cerdán, team head, wholesale marketing, South Asia for HSBC Asset Management. “Others define themselves by their culture, how they do business with consumers and stakeholders. Still others, like plant-based meat substitutes company Beyond Meat for example, want to become world heroes. But most companies operate at the basic level, and that’s what marketers have to understand; we can’t risk exaggerating our claims and making them look unreal.”
HSBC Asset Management, Cerdán adds, has rolled out a comprehensive range of products concerned with tackling sustainable investment issues such as climate change, lower carbon emissions, and sustainable healthcare and natural capital. “As marketers, if it was up to us as individuals, we’d all say our purpose is to save the world,” says Cerdán. “However, marketers have to align themselves to the company’s purpose — and the company’s purpose has to be defined by a multidisciplinary committee including marketing, sales, channel management, finance, strategy, governance and legal. It all boils down to defining what is the purpose of our purpose.”
For multinational consumer goods company Reckitt, the purpose-driven goal is to reach half the world with products that contribute to a cleaner, healthier world by 2030, and to engage two billion people in programmes, partnerships, and campaigns to support the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “To achieve those ambitions,” says Pete Mitchell, the company’s regional media lead in the ASEAN region, “each of our brands — ranging from the water-saving dishwashing brand Finish to Durex, which in addition to promoting responsible sex and reproductive healthcare will work with the Fair Rubber Association to source sustainable latex — has a purpose that’s aligned with one of the UN goals, based on what it does best.”
For the greater good
When focusing on the areas where they can maximise a positive and enduring impact, supported by specific targets and metrics to drive disciplined execution across the business, it’s essential that brands take account of the diversity of stakeholders.
Says David Porter, former vice-president of global media at Unilever and current strategic advisor to a number of organisations including the World Federation of Advertisers: “It used to be that you’d have institutional investors with a strong view or the occasional activist investor, especially in corporations where the number of stakeholders you’d have to juggle was immense. But that same level of complexity has hit us all now.”
Indeed, operating in a highly diverse region, consumer healthcare company GSK has to be careful about the message it sends not just to clients and prospects, but also its local teams. “More homogenous markets like Japan and Korea,” says Silas Lewis-Meilus, GSK’s global head of media business units, “really struggle conceptually with DEI. When we invest our dollars in a space where we believe we are driving diversity, inclusion, and equity, we have to be sensitive to the realities of the market. We’ve had several markets just say no, we’re not ready for that. And I think that’s okay at this point because if you force the issue, it won’t have authenticity.” Instead of setting hard targets for these markets to hit immediately, Lewis-Meilus recommends “market flexibility with some guidance and curated thinking,” allowing market teams to define what DEI means for them and invest in those issues consciously and sensitively.
Shaping Asia’s future
Kartika Guerrero, digital & media director in Southeast Asia for Fonterra agrees that Asia is a highly diverse region, not just culturally but also in terms of shifting preferences, behaviour and triggers.
“At Fonterra, our purpose has focused on women’s health and nutrition and we recognize the different health struggles and issues that Asian women face. For example, there is little or limited discussion on the difficulties Asian women experience during pregnancy.” Fonterra designed a campaign around their maternal milk product, Anmum Materna, that takes an honest look at the different problems these women experience. “The campaign not only builds empathy but prepares soon-to-be mothers mentally for the challenges ahead, giving them the essential nutrition to support them. There is a shift in consumer consciousness happening where consumers seek brands that proactively promote beliefs and values aligned with their own,” says Guerrero.
Guerrero continues, “The likes of Gojek, Grab, Shopee and the sea of other unicorn companies in Asia are driving the evolution of technology. It’s this evolution that will become a driving force for innovation and future leadership on a global scale. We should not forget how this technology drives purpose for the diverse, conscious consumer.”
Lightfoot agrees. “The traditional Western point of view is going to become less and less relevant. Future leaders who have grown up in Asia are going to have a massive natural advantage compared to somebody who's grown up in Europe or the US,” he says.
Asia’s potential for growth and importance as an international business hub is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Singapore. Predicting that the next wave of global leaders will be based in growth markets such as Latin America and Asia, Ranji David, director, Asia Pacific, marketing services at the World Federation of Advertisers, says, “With its infrastructure and favourable tax policies, Singapore offers an ideal base for regional and global organisations. We are seeing an increasing number of global roles based out of Singapore and Asia. And to me that’s such recognition of Asia’s opportunity for growth.”
As Porter says, “We’ve got to stop talking about this part of the world as the ‘rest of world’. This is ‘most of world’. It’s most of the people, most of the growth, most of the time.”
Nikos Patiniotakis, head of global brand development at kiwifruit marketer Zespri, which operates in 50 markets, knows a lot about people and growth in the Asia-Pacific region. “We are a global brand but owned by growers. It’s all about guardianship of the land and it’s all about the people. It’s very ingrained in what we do.” says Patiniotakis. “As a values-led business, we are on the journey of bringing purpose to life. It’s not just marketing — our purpose is about helping people, communities and the planet thrive through the goodness of kiwifruit. It is an idea that we lead with; it is company-wide and everyone embraces it.
“That idea,” Patiniotakis continues, “led to our cause, the tangible action and change we want to bring into the world through sustainable development, being part of the solution for global issue that traverse geographies and socioeconomic status.” In avoiding the pitfalls of having your purpose become nothing more than a buzzword, Patiniotakis emphasises that purpose and cause must “actually inform the design of what you’re doing, rather than just occupying a box in your plan.”
And we want to bring that to life in a meaningful way, understanding how we can improve people’s lives. And that is an important thing, knowing as a brand if you’re making an impact. It’s a very relevant discussion in Asia, and one that is becoming more and more important.”