This is the final post in our series on cause-related advertising.

In the last few years, there has been an increasing trend in long form advertisements wherein brands tout their social purpose, visibly take a social stand and/or support a cause in order to be seen as social-change advocates. In the rest of this article, we’ll refer to all these types of advertising as ‘purpose’ or ‘purpose-driven’ advertising. A few examples of such advertisements were discussed in earlier posts in this series – The times they are a-changing (Part 1) and Planning to jump on the cause bandwagon?.

Head over to an awards site be it international (Cannes) or Indian (Effies) and look at the winners for the past few years, you’ll find that most winners, across award categories, seem to carry a message of good cause.  Sample this, 47% (a record number) of the shortlisted campaigns for creative effectiveness at Cannes Lions 2017 featured not-for-profit or purpose-driven strategy. Closer home, 43% of Effie 2018 winners (a conservative estimate as we didn’t have access to the submissions; those who won gold/silver/bronze) had a message of social good. Such purpose-driven messages also drive the other themes we see of late in creative strategy – extremely long format, storytelling and heavily emotion-driven narratives.

This explosion in purpose-led advertising has been due to two fundamental changes in the landscape. First is the growth of digital and social media where the cost for delivery and amplification of a branded message is near zero, if done right. The second is the rise of the millennials – a significant proportion of the consuming class now – who have different demands from brands. In India, there is also the rise in education levels of women but I would put it as a subset of the latter. This has made brands wake up to the fact that, a) they need to change their narrative or lose relevance and b) niches can be tapped into efficiently and there is a large enough market waiting there.

Supporting the rise in purpose-driven strategy are multiple research studies and corporate earnings presentations that show that campaigns talking purpose have delivered great results to brands that employ them. Influencing purchase decisions, enabling the brand to command price premium and differentiating the brand are but a few reasons why such campaigns seem to deliver. There is of course the reason mentioned earlier – that Millennials and Gen Z are increasingly engaging with social issues and activism and consequently they demand that brands associate with such causes too.

However, at the other end of the spectrum is research that shows the increasing consumer cynicism and distrust of such purpose-led messages primarily due to lack of action by the brand. And, this has a lot to do with brands using purpose as just another marketing tool or ad agencies plugging in unconvincing stories of activism around brands.

And that brings us to the central question of this post – what makes or doesn’t make a good brand purpose strategy and subsequently an effective campaign?

To answer, we need to define ‘brand purpose’. One of the simplest definitions of brand purpose is that it is, “a reason for a brand to exist beyond making profit” and what makes it a good and convincing one is the brand’s “commitment” to it. Think about a strategy with respect to this definition and you’ll start to see which strategies fall into the purpose ambit and which don’t.

First the easier ones, those that aren’t good brand purpose strategy. CSR, charity and philanthropy don’t qualify to be brand purpose strategies as they don’t generate sale and hence profit (rather there is donation from profits) for the brand. Similarly, tactical activations are one-off activities and are not the long term reason for the brand’s existence; neither is there a strong proof of a brand’s commitment to long term action in such one-off activities.

Now, the harder part – which strategies fit the definition of purpose? There aren’t many brands that have purpose entwined with the product or service they are offering. Patagonia and TOMS are brands oft quoted as examples of brands that can’t exist without their purpose. That brings us to brands which over time developed great purpose-driven strategy. The best examples I can think of are the ones that I came across first, way back in 2005. Evolution by Dove championed a conversation around the perception of beauty (and self-esteem) with consumers. Around the same time, I saw Walmart embarking on a conversation around sustainability with its suppliers.  Subsequent Dove campaigns, and there have been many, have all championed this body image, body confidence and self-esteem cause. Similarly, if you were a supplier to Walmart, chances are you would have filled their sustainability scorecards and know how aggressive they are about this cause.

Contrast the above examples to a purpose-driven strategy/campaign you noticed recently, maybe one that won an award recently. Impactful brand purpose strategies, that deliver results, seem to be those that play within the TG – category – brand construct. What issues affect a brand’s customer base, within the category space they compete in, that the brand is well positioned to address? This is all about relevance and authenticity.

Then there are issues of commitment and involvement. How long and consistently has the brand been talking this theme? Is the brand jumping onto the next issue too fast? What on-ground actions have the brand, and it’s various stakeholders, taken to support the campaign?

India has no dearth of causes to champion in social, environmental or even economic spheres. Brands are increasingly bringing such issues to the forefront and/or making statements in a sometimes polarising debate to be seen as social activists, purpose/cause led. But it takes more than just that. Brand purpose is about the actions more than the statements. Clear evidence that purpose-driven strategy is working is the business value that a brand derives out of it and not the number of conversations it ignites on social media.

  • Ravindra Ramavath

A few interesting links for further reading: