Beyond purpose – the age of responsible marketing

April 2022
Kevin Hewitt
Read time:
6 minutes
Beyond purpose – the age of responsible marketing

Purpose has taken over the world of marketing. It seems every brand now has to have a purpose that elevates it above the traditional business of selling a product or service that people might want. Every brand is helping with something, saving something, or fighting something else.

Essentially, every marketer is or has been, obsessed with purpose – and impact. And all up that’s good for the world, even if retrofitted and inauthentic.

However, two key things need to be acknowledged.  The first is that, for most brands, it’s irrelevant to the parent company’s aim of making money, if not actually harmful. Earlier this year, militant Unilever shareholder Terry Smith attacked the “purpose” behind Hellman’s Mayonnaise (it’s “fighting against food waste”, in case you hadn’t noticed). In his words, Unilever’s management was: “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”.

The second is that, when every brand has a purpose, purpose ceases to be a differentiator. When everyone’s special, then no one is. Purpose is now a hygiene factor that businesses must account for and truly operationalize across their culture to manifest fully.

For example, retrofitting purpose deflects from the very real need for marketers to understand how their media and marketing choices put their customers at risk. 


Treating media owners like any other supplier

Increasingly, the quality of your product is no longer enough for customers. They want to know about the quality and provenance of the raw materials and the nature of the manufacturing process. Are they ethical? Fairtrade? Environmentally friendly? In this environment, it’s no longer good enough to view your choice of advertising media purely in terms of effectiveness and brand safety, while ignoring the collateral damage done to the people you’re advertising to. 

At the end of last year, cosmetics brand Lush stopped using Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Co-founder Mark Constantine took the decision because: “There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I’m not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it’s time to take it out of the mix.”

In the case of Lush’s core market of young women and girls, the collateral damage is the pernicious effects of these social channels’ endless aesthetic parades of unattainable physical perfection above the line, and the constant body-shaming below. Which is only becoming a bigger issue, with the age of social media users becoming younger and younger and the apps failing to enforce stricter measures: ‘16% of the three- to four-year-olds are watching TikTok videos regularly.’ 

However, the retailer has maintained their Twitter and YouTube channels, as they still want to be able to connect and communicate, demonstrating an effective balance of a purpose-led approach without losing commercial focus. 

As Lush has shown, it’s time to treat consumers more ethically and responsibility.


Organisational purpose vs. brand purpose

For me, the best definition I’ve heard of ethical marketing came from Heather Physioc, Managing Director, Discoverability at VMLY&R:

“It’s doing the right thing, even when it’s harder or more expensive or more risky.”

Brands looking to be more responsible certainly face a number of challenges, like knowing where to start, since there are so many areas where marketing needs to up its ethical game. This is where marketers can learn from brands that are genuinely purpose-led, rather than those that just had purpose slapped over them as part of their latest brand refresh. 

For a purpose-led brand like Patagonia, purpose is the yardstick against which every decision must be measured. It’s the process that led them to set up a repair service for their clothes and to use their advertising to tell people not to buy their new jacket. 

If you’re not purpose-led, you still need to work out what you stand for, and what your role is in society. This means thinking about the difference between brand purpose and organisational purpose. Explore your company values. Find out what your stakeholders think. Just as importantly, talk to your staff. According to McKinsey, 70% of employees now demand purposeful work. They want the company they work for to take a strong position on social issues.


Aligning with your customers

Similarly, you need to know what your customers – and potential customers – think. 5W Public Relations’ 2020 Consumer Culture Report found that 83% of Millennials say it’s important for the companies they buy from to align with their beliefs and values.

Understanding customers’ views in order to inform the discussion is a key part of marketing’s role, but it requires you to have the right data. And at the other end of the process, you have to be able to monitor and measure customer sentiment to understand the impact of any changes, and recognise if any change of course is needed.

Whatever conclusion you come to about what your company stands for, it has to be authentic and meaningful. Authentic, because customer tolerance for corporate fluff is at an all-time low. Meaningful, because you need to show that what you’re saying is leading to genuine change. Customers have caught on to the act, and they will expose any hypocrisy without mercy. As marketer, educator and columnist Mark Ritson put it in a recent Marketing Week article about the industry’s response to the war in Ukraine: “Just as Black Lives Matter highlighted a host of companies that were big on blacked-out logos but not so big on black faces in the boardroom, the superficial side of marketing saw the yellow and blue cover a heap of hot air.”


Establishing a consistent position for your brand

Next, you need to decide your priorities; where are you going to focus your energy? A lot of organisations are concerned about this. They worry that being responsible in one area of their business will mean they’ll be pilloried for how far they have to go in others. 

In fact, it’s inevitable that will happen. Haters are gonna hate, and you have to be ready to support those people brave enough to step into the glare of social media. You can also mitigate the criticism by admitting you know there is more to do, explaining that you’ve set priorities, and talking openly about the thinking behind them. 

It’s also worth remembering that you can’t change everything overnight and that by creating external accountability you’re also helping to keep change moving forwards. Nike was criticised for inconsistency around Black Lives Matter, but the people in the marketing department were doing the right thing. They have no control over the diversity of the boardroom, but by connecting with their customers and raising the debate, they were standing up what for they believed in, and they also prompted a discussion about how the board should change.

Ultimately, the credibility of anything you do will depend on it delivering change. Interviewed for this article, Katie Eyton, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer at Omnicom Media Group UK suggested brands should adopt tangible objectives.

“What outcome do you want your action to achieve? If it goes well, what’s the desired outcome and the impact that it’s going to have? And what will you do if it doesn’t have that impact? You have to ask if you can make it stick. For this to have credibility, you have to have a consistent position, and jumping in and out of actions undermines that.”


Balancing value and values

The difference between responsible brands and those that are just purpose-washed is that responsible marketers understand that long-term relationships are based on trust, respect and shared interests, whether that’s between people or between brands and their customers. 

Research backs this up. Edelman Trust found '70% of consumers say trusting a brand is more important than ever'; c_space reported that; “the belief that a company respects you is a key driver of customer loyalty, and it’s the only driver that gained in significance in 2020”. 

In other words, this isn’t either/or. You can deliver strong businesses performance in a responsible way like Patagonia and its purpose-led mission or Lush with their social strategy

Or as Sophie Devonshire, Chief Executive of the Marketing Society says:

“Responsibility isn’t just about doing the right thing for the planet, for society or your customers, it’s about the long-term good of your brand, your culture and your business too.”