The true meaning of purpose driven marketing | Blog

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Purpose driven marketing is not a new phenomenon. One need only watch Steve Jobs’s 1997 speech on Apple’s ‘Core Values’ to see that it’s always been a fundamental aspect of brand growth and marketing. Despite hailing from a different century, the video is still relevant today, particularly the part where Jobs emphasises that brands must be really clear on what it is they want to be remembered for. 

While Jobs called the 90s a ‘complicated’ and ‘noisy’ world, the world we’re experiencing now is noisier, and more complicated than ever. As such, being remembered for doing the right thing, in the right way is a real struggle for modern brands. And yet, it’s at the top of their to-do list, with consumers demanding that brands become forces for social good. According to Edelman’s  Trust Barometer 2020, 56% of consumers believe that capitalism does ‘more harm than good’. As a result, people are looking to companies to take an ethical stance. 62% of consumers want today’s brands to have strong ethical values, and to infuse those authentically into everything they do (source: Accenture). 

In the 90s, you couldn’t simply call out brands for their mistakes over Twitter. However, today’s consumers have increased visibility on a brand’s inner workings, and can point out anything that seems amiss. As a result, both the brand and the company have to be driven by clear values and purpose, implementing them into everything they do.The company should sort out the how of the purpose, putting practical measures in place within the business to drive results based on the overarching purpose. The brand, on the other hand, needs to act as the mouthpiece, verbalising why the organisation is pursuing a purpose, using that to connect with audiences and to incite wider change within the world.

For more on the true meaning of purpose driven marketing, download our new guide – Global Marketing Next: The Great Cultural Reset. 

Global vs local purpose

For global brands, purpose marketing gets even more complicated as local purpose also gets added to the mix. Say, for example, a brand’s overarching mission is shaped by their main presence in the US, that mission might not be as relevant in certain regions of EMEA, APAC or LATAM. Indeed, different cultures are built from different values. And since values are the fundamentals of purpose marketing, global brands cannot expect their brand values to easily translate around the world. 

Returning to our example, the US purpose-led messaging would have to be localised for in-market audiences. As a result, the brand messaging in Japan or Australia might look very different to the US version. That doesn’t mean the brand is straying from its purpose. To truly connect with audiences authentically through shared values, brands have to understand and adapt to the nuances of local values. While this might sound obvious, even neighbouring regions that are seemingly very similar from the outside can be drastically different when it comes to their idea of ethical purpose – something that brands often forget. 

In fact, many US brands overlook Canada, seeing it as a close neighbour and therefore culturally similar. However, this is a mistake, since Canada has a very unique national and cultural identity. For starters, among many other cultural factors, Canada has been heavily influenced by a history of French colonialism and by the symbolism of the British commonwealth. Their attitudes towards social policies such as immigration, education, healthcare and guns tend to be more closely linked to Europe than to America. 

To avoid making dangerous assumptions, global marketers should feed local insights into their purpose marketing strategy. That way local purpose – not the overarching brand purpose – can dictate any in-market activations. 

Check out our interview with Matthias Gray, Head of Global Strategy here at Freedman. He discusses how brands can successfully communicate their purpose to local audiences.

Get your house in order

Nowadays, a lot of brands feel the need to make a political statement in response to many social issues, especially if an issue is trending in the media. This gut reaction makes sense when, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer Special Report in 2020, 80% of global consumers want brands to ‘solve society’s problems’. However, while the desire to say something is understandable, it’s often not legitimate for brands to speak out. As a result, backlash occurs.

Take, for example, McDonald’s’ International Women’s Day Campaign which saw the distinctive M logo flipped to a W in celebration of women around the world and, more specifically, in their restaurants. The campaign was met with criticism online as many cited the chain’s poor working conditions for women, including issues of workplace harassment. Momentum, a British left wing group, responded by sharing a video detailing how some female McDonald’s workers faced poverty and homelessness due to low pay and zero-hours contracts (source: The Guardian). This leads to perhaps the most crucial point when it comes to purpose-led marketing. Brands can’t capitalise on ethical movements if their own actions aren’t without reproach. Indeed, it’s a surefire way to make consumers see brands as nothing more than opportunistic and inauthentic.

Ultimately, a company’s internal workings should reflect any external communications when it comes to ethics. To do this, companies need to analyse their inner workings, setting out clear KPIs based on purpose-led initiatives and actively tracking how well they are achieving their purpose, from a company standpoint. Only then can ethical messaging take centre stage in the marketing. 

Pursuing an authentic purpose

What is authentic purpose driven marketing? Beyond aligning a company’s inner workings with a brand’s purpose-led messaging, purpose marketing is about brands reacting to what’s happening in the world in a way that’s relevant to their audiences. Brands must recognise how their customers use their product or service, and the role their product or service plays in the wider world. Then they must ask themselves how they can adapt and improve their offering in order to make a long term, positive impact. 

An example of this in action is Always’s #LikeAGirl campaign. In 2014, Always recognised that their young female customers tended to perceive themselves negatively, as a result of social conditioning. So, they launched  #LikeAGirl to shed light on the issue. #LikeAGirl was hugely successful, going viral in under 24 hours (source: Cincinnati Business Courier). As a result of the campaign, stigma surrounding female identity began to change – almost 70% of women and 60% of men claimed that “the video changed my perception of the phrase ‘like a girl’” (source: Campaign). 5 years later and the #LikeAGirl campaign is now a movement, which continues to influence the products and services Always offers to its customers. 

Built from insights, and true to their brand, Always’s #LikeAGirl is the perfect example of purpose driven marketing in action. That’s why the campaign was – and still is – so powerful. On the other hand, thinking back to McDonald’s International Women’s Day campaign, there wasn’t a tangible connection between the brand’s identity and the campaign’s mission. It was a case of McDonald’s trying to be everything to everyone. Indeed, purpose-driven marketing shouldn’t be a case of changing the brand entirely to please everyone. If a brand has a multitude of unrealistic, world-changing goals that don’t align with who they are as an organisation, then they’re unlikely to achieve any of them.

Luckily, there’s always an opportunity for established brands to discover their authentic purpose, especially one close to their customers’ hearts. For example, in 2010, American Express looked to its audience and recognised that many were small business owners. So, they launched Shop Small, an initiative that helps connect customers to their local businesses, and incentivises shopping local for American Express users. 10 years later, the campaign is now a key part of American Express’s global strategy, and is a recognisable aspect of the brand’s identity.

For more great examples of purpose driven marketing campaigns, check out our guide on Global Marketing Next: The Great Cultural Reset. 

Assess the local situation

When planning a purpose driven marketing campaign for global audiences, it’s important to consider that markets have very different attitudes towards social and political matters such as gender, sexuality, diversity or sustainability.

Culture, religion, politics…all of these factors influence how people think and what is perceived as acceptable in local markets. Some markets have very strict taboos dictated by religion or superstition. Other markets are under strict political rule. Access to education and openness to the rest of the world will also impact people’s attitudes towards progress. Of course, social progress is happening across different areas of the globe, but progress is very different from one country to another. While in the UK issues such as transphobia, racial discrimination, or sexual harassment are more and more scrutinised, in Saudi Arabia women were only recently given the right to drive.

Moreover, even in markets that are considered liberal, the rise of neo-nationalism means that societies are becoming more and more divided. A growing proportion of the population is clinging onto an idealised representation of the past, rejecting change and otherness. This can be seen in negative reactions to advertising campaigns. Take the Viva La Vulva campaign for feminine care brand Bodyform. The campaign, launched in 2018, celebrated the female body by playfully representing the vulva through various objects – with a mission to educate and break down the taboos around female sexual anatomy. The ad was met with great reactions from the creative community, but some markets did not react to it positively.

Surprisingly, there were hostile reactions in France, not particularly known to be a puritan nation. Some French viewers deemed the ad revolting rather than empowering. The backlash triggered a deluge of complaints to the country’s media regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). And yet, while there was an obvious backlash, the campaign still got people talking across different media platforms, with many commentators defending the ad. Viva La Vulva even made headlines. This goes to show that in some cases it is worth taking a risk, but it’s all about assessing the situation within the market in order to predict and measure the potential backlash. If certain subgroups are going to react negatively, but the market as a whole is likely to celebrate the campaign or be positively challenged by it, then it’s worth pushing out into the region.

If a market’s current social, political or cultural situation is incredibly heated on a certain topic, brands should be prepared for negative reactions and decide whether they are prepared to face the potential controversy. For example, Hungary as a nation is divided on the topic of sexuality, which led to Coca-Cola coming under fire in 2019. While many Hungarians hold progressive values, with more and more supporting LGBTQI rights, supporters of the ruling conservative party, Fidesz, are openly against same-sex marriage. In fact, in 2019, Boldog István, a Fidesz MP, called for the boycott of Coca-Cola until the brand removed its OOH ads featuring images of same-sex couples. As a result, Coca-Cola had to change the campaign visuals in the region.

From brand purpose to brand activism

There are some brands who take purpose-marketing to the next level, using their platform to bring about change within society. For them, negative reaction is a tool to spread the word about larger issues at bay within our world. 

  • Nike

Nike is an example of a brand actively fighting for social change. In 2018, Nike chose Colin Kaepernick – a football player who refused to chant the US national anthem at the Superbowl, in protest for the Black Lives Matter movement – as the face of their 30th Anniversary Just Do It campaign. As anticipated, the advert caused spectacular backlash amongst conservative viewers. But Nike knew what they were doing. Older conservatives don’t constitute their target audience; Nike could take the risk to alienate them. The strategy paid off; Nike’s stock value hit an all-time high in September 2018, despite the backlash. 

In the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests, Nike shared a post urging people to support the cause. This was seemingly on-brand considering their work with Kaepernick. However, they clearly weren’t expecting audiences to analyse their internal workings. Nike received a huge amount of backlash after it was revealed that black employees felt “a disconnect” between the external and internal brand experience. Nike responded quickly and set about incorporating their audience facing messaging into their company’s inner workings. However, this internal work should have been done long before the brand adopted an activist tone in its marketing. Once again, it’s a case of marrying brand messaging to company policy.

  • BrewDog 

BrewDog are another brand who aren’t afraid to get political. For them, activism is about provoking audiences by pushing the boundaries of marketing. Their 2020 carbon neutral campaign was no exception. To launch their £30M climate action programme, BrewDog created ads featuring the words: ‘F**ck You CO2’ partially obscured by their Punk IPA can. However, the ASA banned the OOH and print ads, in part due to several of the ad placements being close to schools and religious buildings. 

The creative approach – disguising a swear word behind a product – wasn’t a totally new idea, and might not have caused as much of a storm had it not been banned. However, it was the ASA’s ruling combined with BrewDog’s subsequent comment that became the real talking points:“the ASA can go f*** themselves. We are in the midst of an existential climate crisis. Thank you to the Metro, The Week, The Economist and billboard sites for understanding the importance of our carbon negative campaign” (source: James Watt, via The Drum). The campaign fallout made headlines and took over social media feeds, inciting debate amongst many. Whether BrewDog intended for the ad to get banned, we don’t know. But, by continuing to act in a provocative manner – releasing an on-brand statement against the ban – BrewDog were able to transform a fairly simple piece of creative into a media storm and raised brand awareness.

Of course, it’s worth asking who actually gained from BrewDog’s provocative carbon negative campaign. Were more people talking about sustainable initiatives as a result? Or were they just talking about the campaign scandal? The point is, if a brand is trying to further a cause, provoking a response amongst the masses can be a great method. But if the provocative marketing gets more attention than the real issue at hand, is it really purpose-led provocation? Or is it just a bid to increase sales? When marketing a purposeful message, marketers need to analyse their creative and their local audiences to gauge what kind of a response they’ll get. If the response seems like it will help drive a brand’s ethical mission forward, then great. If not, perhaps a new creative route is required. 

This is something that BrewDog seemed to forget with the 2018 Pink IPA campaign. To call out the ridiculous nature of gender stereotypes and the gender pay gap, BrewDog released their Pink IPA (complete with pretty pink packaging) .Their intentions were honourable – 20% of the Pink IPA proceeds went to relevant charities. But the campaign sparked outrage. Many felt that the satire and sarcasm didn’t translate to packaging, meaning the Pink IPA was actually helping to perpetuate stereotypes. James Watt, BrewDog’s CEO, admitted himself that “Despite the good intentions, our execution was terrible”, and that “the backlash was justified” (source: James Watt, My 10 Biggest Mistakes As BrewDog’s CEO). The good news is that activist brands like BrewDog can always learn from their mistakes (and there will always be mistakes with purpose-led marketing). Rather than give up, BrewDog continually fine-tune their methods to help achieve their punk purpose.

The value of purpose driven marketing

If finding a purpose and advocating it publicly presents a lot of risk for brands, why do it? For many, the aim of purpose-driven global marketing is to make the brand appear more ‘human’ in the eyes of consumers. But brands have to go about this carefully, something Mondelez learned the hard way. 

‘Humaning’, a term coined by Mondelez, is a new approach to marketing based on supporting charities, improving company diversity and creating real human connections with customers. Of course, these are all noble goals. However, in trying to sell a ‘boundary-pushing’ and ‘customer-centric’ approach to purpose marketing, Mondelez delivered a mission statement that sounded more like a game of marketing buzzword bingo. Ironically, they made their purpose and approach even less human, and needlessly grandiose. What’s more, they seemed to forget the role their products play in customers’ lives entirely. For purpose driven marketing to work, it must be tied to a brand’s product or service and customer experience. 

Brand ethics is not about selling a higher purpose to audiences. It’s about setting achievable goals that audiences both understand and appreciate – publishing realistic targets for lowering carbon emissions, for example. After all, the true value of purpose lies in connecting with audiences in a deeper, more resonant way. By finding their audience’s ethical purpose, brands can actually understand them far more than by relying on traditional demographics. In fact, 2020’s Deloitte’s Value Compass revealed that measuring people on their values, as opposed to traditional demographics, created a stronger link to their consumer behaviour (source: Deloitte 2021 Global Marketing Trends).  

If brands listen and react to what their customers value, those customers will become allies. As a result, the brand will achieve top line growth by generating more loyal customers. And revenue is less likely to slip as consumers will stay with a brand for more than just its product. 

And if that’s not convincing enough, studies show that purpose drives profit. By having a company purpose that employees believe in, employers will be able to harness their enthusiasm and dedication, thus helping to drive business forward.

To read more on the importance of brand values, download our new guide here. 

Freedman's approach to purpose driven marketing

Here at Freedman, we recognise how important it is for brands to effectively communicate their purpose to global audiences. It can be tricky – complex matters like diversity and sustainability become even more complex on a global scale. But, whether it’s a commitment to diversity or new sustainable initiatives, we provide brands with the local picture, helping them see what matters to local audiences.

If you’d like some help in delivering authentic, purpose driven marketing to local audiences, get in touch. And, make sure to download our latest guide on brand purpose here.

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