The purpose backlash

15th September 2017

Purpose-driven campaigns have quickly become the new advertising standard, raising questions regarding their authenticity. Whether purpose-driven marketing is a passing trend or not, purpose-driven business is definitely here to stay.

Understanding the difference between the two – and how important creativity and communications are for the latter – is a decisive moment for our industry. The implications of this transition are profound. Beyond building strong and resilient brands, we must now build strong and resilient companies.

How did we get here?

Over the past decade or so, more and more brand owners have aspired to address social issues by taking a stand in their advertising. This shifted focus of marketing budgets – from product to purpose – is closely connected to the ascendance of social media, with its near-poetic promise of earned engagement and viral effect.

But in the new marketing era, more and more purpose-driven campaigns find themselves criticised, mocked or hijacked. In the best case, they are the object of ridicule in a television sketch or popular podcast. More prosaically, they can fall under the scrutiny of journalists and conscious consumers, who are curious to see if companies can cash the cheques that their brands are writing.

Occasionally, brand owners will be called out by vocal influencers and activist groups, accused of appropriating political struggles and exploiting social issues with no genuine, long-term engagement. Another emerging response is hate and harassment: there have been cases of marketers on both client and agency side being subjected to threats for taking a progressive stand on issues such as diversity or gender equality.

Far-right extremists are using the power of social media like no other political group: their tactics include the hijacking of commercial campaigns to spread hate messages and publishing the contact details of marketers.

So for many CMOs, the thought of going back to the days before purpose-driven work is beginning to look tempting. With so much conflict and risk, many brand owners may feel like shutting down all this “taking a stand” business and going back to old-school advertising.

But while this is a reasonable and human response to criticism and threats, it is also a delusion: you can change your marketing strategy, but you can’t change the new media landscape in which you operate.

The promise of the internet was to bring us closer to one another. And it did, but rather than resolving conflicts it has, unfortunately, appeared to intensify culture clashes. This increased polarisation has transformed social media beyond platforms for friendship and mutual interests to a battleground for colliding ideals, perspectives and lifestyles.

Combined with the current crisis of traditional news outlets and the emergence of a new generation of politicised news platforms, the dominant business model of modern journalism is the daily distribution of anger. In this new ecosystem of resentment, conflict has become a tool for reach – perhaps the only one.

This creates new challenges for brand owners, especially those that are hoping to return to a less purposeful place. Because there’s no such thing as being on the sidelines, or being a neutral observer, any more.

Where do we go from here?

I believe that there are three keys to tackling the new reality and getting through the purpose backlash: encouraging convergence, mastering complexity and understanding community. Brand owners and agencies that excel in these three areas will take the lead in a new chapter of purpose-driven business.

Convergence

For better or worse, there are no longer clear borders between business, politics and media. Companies, organisations and institutions are merging disciplines and encouraging cross-pollination of different fields of expertise, be it the convergence of science and design, the combination of data and creativity, or the “shared value” business concept, with its connection between societal and economic progress.

The biggest implication for agencies and brands is undoubtedly the increasing convergence of communication, marketing and HR, to dissolve the lines between internal and external communication. While breaking silos is generally considered a good thing, for some, this will be closer to a complete rearrangement of the organisational chart.

Complexity

When a company’s every touch point – internal or external – is critical from a communications perspective, the work of an agency becomes infinitely more complex. Moving from a channel perspective to a stakeholder perspective is essential. Anchoring a concept or campaign internally is crucial before activating it externally. Equally important is building models that encourage new forms of collaboration and enable diversity in way of thinking. And while this all works well in theory, the real challenge is to do it at speed.

We’re having to deal with a new kind of “crisis cocktail”, where the velocity of digital media, the dissolution of internal and external communication, increased consumer power, citizen journalism and the emergence of large scale disinformation campaigns have changed the rules of crisis management.

With conflict becoming the new normal, risk aversion can no longer be the go-to strategy. On the contrary, the biggest risk today is not taking one. Perhaps marketers should start assessing risk in the same way as the financial markets do: as a necessary part of the job, where risks above average also give returns above average.

Community

All companies are part of a community. There are those who know it and those who are discovering it. There are those that highlight it and those that tone it down. But as the old saying goes: all business is local. The difference today is that the definition of “local” isn’t geographic, but rather a social tissue that connects like-minded people in completely different places.

The next generation of purpose-driven businesses understand this. They know that integrity, credibility and relevance are their most important currencies, and that their value is derived from the difference they make in their community. The agencies that do ground-breaking work for them also get this societal integration, moving beyond brand activism to building and supporting communities with creativity, humility and grit.

That, in short, is the difference between purpose-driven marketing and purpose-driven business. Done right, it puts strategic communication and creativity at the heart of an organisation, with a clear stakeholder perspective that transcends internal and external boundaries. It integrates marketing, communications and HR to build a stronger culture, better product and a more resilient company.

For marketing and communications professionals, this makes our line of work much harder, but also more valuable. I, for one, welcome it.