Is this the end for brand purpose?

Pepsi, Heineken, Dove and McDonald’s have all run into trouble recently by combining social purpose with a sales message. Is this the end for brand purpose?

Purpose seems to be reaching a tipping point, doesn’t it? Recent months have seen a wave of ads that have backfired in an attempt to be socially relevant.

First there was Pepsi – a campaign so stunningly misconceived that it created one of those ironic feedback loops where people started to like them for it (in a moment for the branding historians, there were reports of protesters hurling Pepsi cans at police).

Then there was the Heineken ad, positively received by some, but also the subject of an article in Marketing Week by Mark Ritson, which argues that it’s symptomatic of an advertising culture that doesn’t like selling things any more, and is more comfortable with cosy virtue-signalling. We’ll come back to this.

Next was the Dove packaging, widely reported as a misstep in its otherwise successful ‘Real beauty’ campaign – but, to my mind, just a slightly more patronising version of its usual posturing.

Most recently, there was the McDonald’s filet-o-bereavement ad – a tale of a boy asking his mum about his dead father and finding they have nothing in common except for (cue product shot) a filet-o-fish. Because McDonald’s doesn’t just sell fast food, it’s part of the fabric of our everyday lives, always by our side through the ups and downs (copyright all brand strategy presentations).

There’s too much in these four ads to unpick in one article, but I’ll pull at a few threads – starting with Heineken. I don’t exactly disagree with Ritson when he argues that the ad won’t help Heineken sales to the extent that ads should – but I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem.

The brand purpose people (who hover behind all four of these ads) will happily tell you they’re about profit – but that purpose is the way to do it. They’ll also argue that advertising works differently these days – it’s not about the ad, it’s about the soft press coverage it generates. And it’s hard to argue that having Heineken’s name all over the web linked to a good cause isn’t going to help sales.

My problem with Heineken is not that it isn’t ‘selling’. It’s that It’s monetising social causes, offering glib answers and pushing the illusion that you’re doing good by choosing a brand of beer

Yes, a product-based ad might sell better, but it also might not – advertising is mysterious that way. It would be interesting to see Coca-Cola’s sales figures over the last year, since they repositioned around a classic product-based approach. But I’ve no idea what those figures would be. Either way, my fundamental problem with Heineken is not that it isn’t ‘selling’. It’s that it’s not doing the good it claims. Worse than that, it’s monetising social causes, offering glib answers and pushing the illusion that you’re doing good by choosing a brand of beer.

It’s the same with Dove, Pepsi and McDonald’s. With all of them, there’s a basic question of taste. When brands mix social issues with a sales message, it looks crass and cheap, because it is. Somewhere along the line, this sense of taste – this instinct for how it looks to other people – seems to have been lost.

With the McDonald’s ad, I wholeheartedly agree with the insight behind it. Brands do play a big part in our everyday lives. They can be surprisingly emotional touchstones, even in the darkest times. A few years ago, there was the woman who was buried in a Costa coffin, because she loved the place so much. It seems funny, but it’s also real and true. What it isn’t is an ad. As soon as you turn it into an ad, the real and true thing becomes a crass and insensitive thing. Because making something an ad changes what it is. Attaching a sales message to something changes what it is.

Intentionally or not, the brand purpose movement pushes the opposite idea. The central mantra is that ‘Doing good is good business’. It actively encourages brands to harness social issues as a way of increasing sales. It flatters them into thinking they have a higher purpose beyond profit, when they usually don’t.

Bill Bernbach said that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. today’s advertisers have turned that around — now it isn’t a principle until it makes you money

Costa may have become an intensely meaningful part of some customers’ lives as a byproduct of doing what it does – but that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to make money by selling coffee in nice places. That’s why the woman liked it. If she’d been assailed on every visit by tear-jerking messages about how Costa is a deeply meaningful part of every customer’s journey through life and death, she’d probably have gone to Caffè Nero.

Dove has ridden this wave longer than most, and generally got away with it. The packaging has been roundly mocked (also squarely, ovally mocked etc), but is it any different to those curly-haired Dove emojis from a couple of years ago? Both are ostensibly an attempt to ‘celebrate’ diverse body images, but instead introduce a body image element into parts of life where people could generally do without it.

Do you really have to think about your body shape in a supermarket, or ponder which emoji matches your hair? As people more qualified than me have pointed out (see Mindy Kaling’s entertaining book Why Not Me?), these ads reinforce the insecurities they claim to fight, and introduce new insecurities that people didn’t know they were supposed to have. It’s like that old joke about how to make someone feel insecure – tell them ‘I think you’re great, no matter what everyone else says’. That is Dove’s brand positioning.

Above: Dove has form in dressing its products up in service of what it believes is a social cause, whether that be championing curly hair via a set of emojis

The bigger point with all this is that brands aren’t good at doing social issues, unless they are at core a social issues brand. Whenever you see a brand adopting a cause – whether it’s Andrex doing Clean or Dove doing Feminism – it’s always with the zeal of the recent convert. Not only do they now believe in this issue, but they’re also going to be the one who ‘leads the conversation’ and tells you about it. There’s never a sense of humility or genuine engagement, because brands always have to cast themselves as the hero.

And there are plenty of enablers cheering them on – the press will generally go along for the ride, and awards schemes are happy to treat ‘doing good’ as something that can be judged on the basis of an emotive case study video with no independent evaluation or critical context. For as long as that remains the case, agencies will keep accelerating from concept to case study video, with little regard for the reality of what happens in between.

So should brands drop the idea of doing good, and get back to shifting product with good old-fashioned USPs?

Well, it might be a start. But the thing is, I like the idea of businesses doing good, and being decent corporate citizens. I like the old philanthropic principles that led to the Lever brothers building Port Sunlight, or Cadbury building Bourneville, back in the early days of big business.

More recently, I liked Ricoh using its core expertise to restore and return 400,000 lost photos to their owners after the Japan tsunami of 2011 – a project full of procedural rigour and refreshingly free of social media metrics.

The difference is that none of those businesses elevated these things into their ‘purpose’ or used them to sell things. For the Lever brothers and Cadbury, most of it was driven by a Victorian sense of duty, led by rich men who wanted to be able to look their local vicar in the eye every Sunday. Of course, there was self-interest involved – securing a better, happier workforce. But there was a sense of contributing to society for its own sake, even if it came at a cost – or especially if it came at a cost, because that’s what made it charitable and good.

This gets close to the sleight of hand at the heart of brand purpose. It was Bill Bernbach, an advertiser from a different era, who said that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. Today’s advertisers have magically turned that around – now a principle isn’t a principle until it makes you money. At some point, that logic has to be challenged – not least because it’s leading to some terrible ads. If Pepsi, Heineken, McDonald’s and Dove represent a tipping point, then maybe they will have achieved something good.

Nick Asbury is a writer for branding and design and one half of Asbury & Asbury. 

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  • Stephanie Nordstrom 04/10/2017 at 5:32 pm

    Great read. I fully agree with the reverse effect that purpose-driven marketing has from what it intends for these large brands. They are co-opting something that was never theirs in the first place, which will only increasingly be perceived as manipulative. Furthermore, the practice dilutes the sincerity of anyone taking a stand to have a similarly ulterior motive. In contrast, I do see modern brands having much success when they grow structured from a central principle. Glossier – Skin First, Makeup Second is an example of a purpose that they introduced to the market. Ownership over a positive idea – if original, will only continue to flourish.

  • Visnja Milidragovic 21/06/2017 at 9:23 pm

    The real purpose of companies has always been to make money – whether for a good cause or not. And they’re always sold more than just the product, whether people were aware of it or not. So no, brand purpose isn’t dead – so long as companies are making money. Consumers are just becoming more discerning – whether this affects their purchasing decisions or not is the only things companies really care about.

  • Celia Wilson 20/06/2017 at 11:11 pm

    I don’t get influenced by ads because at a very young age my Dad who worked at a large corporation said not to believe in them… Ha

  • . 20/06/2017 at 5:07 pm

    Advertising is the lapdog of capitalism, and until capitalism is fixed – something becoming more obvious as a broken model every day – advertising will continue to pander and manipulate for a single bottom line. And as much as emotionally intelligent advertisers and their agencies would wish to be a part of real change, they are merely followers, beholden to the whims of shareholders over stakeholders and the fallacy of neoliberalism and the markets “invisible hand”.

  • Radostin Peshev 20/06/2017 at 9:08 am

    Very insightful article indeed. It (re)proves the simple truth that Sir John Hegarty talked about – the brand relevance. Nowadays, every brand tries to tame the social wave no matter how far it is from the brand credo and how appropriate is to the audience. Brands should think more about authenticity – today’s audience most despised thing is fakeness and all those look fake as a cause. Cannes Lions are also overoccupied with fake-ness.

  • Neil Hopkins 20/06/2017 at 9:02 am

    Is it the end of brand purpose, or the end of badly done brand purpose? McDonald’s Dead Dad should never really have come off the idea board ; Pepsi was like bad Dad Dancing and should have been spotted before release; and I’m not entirely sure what Dove where thinking with their bottles.

    Personally, I quite liked the Heineken work and think that some of the backlash against it was wrong (more here: ). I also disagree with your read on it – that the act of buying the beer is an act of social good.
    The ad merely positions Heineken as a mechanism, not an end. brands like TOMS Shoes, for example, position the purpose/social good relationship much more strongly.

    For examples of well done social purpose, I think that NatWest works quite well at the moment – they seem to have judged mood & tone well.

    Purpose is a massively strong driver – and I think that it will remain so as more people become more interested in the world around them. The key, however, is to make the expression of that purpose meaningful and not a fly-by-night attempt to get some soft headlines. Consumers can see where a brand’s actions don’t match their advertising and will vote with their wallets!