Insights 06/05/2022 Nick Dormon

Do brands need to stand for something?

We are hearing a great deal about purpose in marketing and business these days. Unilever have been on the vanguard of giving brands social, ethical and environmental purpose for a decade or more under their Sustainable Living Plan. Recently, they have come into some flak from investors for putting too much emphasis on doing good, rather than selling more. Yet, Unilever say that the brands that sit under the USLP have outperformed those that don’t.

We can’t watch TV these days without one brand or another making statements about how ‘good’ they are to people and the planet. If an alien from out-of-space was watching, they would think the entire population had suddenly turned from being omnivores for millennia to herbivores overnight with the number of vegan products being touted. And it’s difficult to believe that less than 20% of cars sold in the UK last year were ‘plug in’ – by the overwhelming number of electric and hybrid car ads we see, you would think we all had one.

In the mature FMCG and car markets, social and environmental challenges have given these sectors something new to talk about with consumers. Investor, Terry Smith complained that Unilever’s Hellman’s should not be going on about reducing waste food. It’s just mayonnaise after all! But what is the brand to say that has not been said before? How does it keep the consumer’s attention? ‘Made with real eggs’ wears a bit thin after a while, so why not talk about how great it is to liven up left over food? It saves money and the environment as well – and it’s a genuine role for the product.

Social purpose without functional purpose (i.e. what the product or service exists to do) is, however, just empty marketing; social purpose that’s not related to the product purpose is plainly very difficult to pull off. Using the example of Unilever again: Lifebuoy is huge in the Asian subcontinent where hygiene is critical to the health of poorer communities. So, a purpose that makes a connection that links washing kids’ hands with reducing child sickness and resulting reduction in school absence is a noble and ‘doable’ reason for the brand. We recently helped Kleenex collaborate with mental health charity Mind though our repositioning and design of their box tissues. The product’s connection to emotion and mental health are easy companions and the design has proved very successful.

But how does a vodka, or even perhaps a biscuit brand, find a natural fit to a higher-level purpose when they do not have a natural role to play. Yes, they should be talking about acceptable alcohol and sugar levels. However, these should not be differentiators, but a standard category requirement. Another table stake should be environmental and ethical production – and here therein lies an opportunity.

Firstly, good production practices will nearly always yield better product. I remember working with Kraft coffee decades ago where for 20 years they had been working directly with their famers to improve their conditions and advance their agricultural practices. The end result was, literally, fatter coffee beans – higher yields and better taste – everyone’s a winner. And because supply chain and production are unique to each brand, as are the people involved, those production stories are materially often similar, but the feel of them is always unique and so stand out. One of our clients, The English Tea Shop, have done wonderful things in collaboration with their farmers, suppliers and staff which we have been able to weave into their brand story to subsequently elicit commercial success.

I would think that most consumers will firstly want to know that their brand has done everything possible in their own backyard to make their own impact on the world as positive as possible. Second should be how they can go onto help others. Seen the other way round, many would question whether greenwashing was at play. Authenticity is key to the success of the marketing of purpose, in either its functional or philanthropic aspects.

Another positive aspect of purpose Terry Smith has completely missed, is the powerful motivation genuine purpose has on the employees and suppliers. In starting their careers, what graduate today would want to work for a company that did not have a clear purpose and a strong grip on ethics and sustainability. What employee, supplier or consultant, like us at Echo, would not want to go the extra mile to deliver work that would do good in the world. As individuals, we can feel disempowered when faced with the magnitude of climate change. But collectively under the auspices of a corporation, we can multiply our efforts significantly and make real change.

Of course, investors must make a return on their investments. But as Mark Carney says, a company’s environmental plan is as critical to their future success as much as any other facet of their commercial operations. After all, why have so many companies pulled out of Russia – where they have invested heavily over the last decades – if it is not for the inevitable, highly negative, affects on their share prices, staff retention and morale in the light of the Ukraine war?

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book, Sapiens, companies are simply only a construct only made tangible by the rules, narrative and activities of those people that belong. Take that away and you have nothing. Responsible purpose it the keystone to tying it all together.

Read the article on Elite Business Live here