Dove Unilever Social Media ad

The evolution of brand purpose

This year saw the most enduring trend of the past decade take a bashing, with significant voices in the industry turning against it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the end of purpose just yet

In October this year, Unilever’s new chief executive Hein Schumacher proclaimed that purpose could be an “unwelcome distraction” for brands. “Not every brand should have a social or environmental purpose. And we don’t want to fit that on brands unnecessarily,” he told the Financial Times.

The announcement was significant in the fact that Unilever had previously attributed purpose to significant growth, announcing in 2019 that “brands taking action for people and planet grew 69% faster than the rest of our business last year” and that going forward “every Unilever brand will be a brand with purpose”. And in terms of Dove, its purpose approach continues apace, with this year seeing the brand directly attacking social media for its impact on women and girls’ self-esteem via an ad campaign.

Brand purpose has weathered many storms since it came to prominence around a decade ago, with brands including Pepsi and Gillette receiving angry responses to campaigns that were deemed to be patronising or preachy. But these controversies did little to dampen the allure of social purpose for marketers. Instead, it has taken the combination of a cost of living crisis, a new set of badly received campaigns (in particular for Bud Lite), and stricter regulation against greenwashing to see the industry begin to turn away from the purpose marketing movement. Perhaps tellingly, we’ve even seen glimpses of a backlash at advertising award ceremonies, which have been dominated by ‘advertising for good’ in recent years.