Marketers shouldn’t oversimplify the arguments

Investor Terry Smith criticised Unilever’s ‘obsession’ with the purpose of brands such as Hellman’s

We ended 2021 with the furore that surrounded Peter Field’s talk for the IPA on brand purpose. And we started 2022 in much the same vein. Last week Terry Smith, the uber-influential investment analyst who runs Fundsmith Equity, took a big bite out of Unilever and its famed focus on purpose. Smith – who runs a fund that has just announced a 22% annual return – is fuming because his portfolio also includes Unilever, which delivered a -0.2% return.

Citing the “ludicrous” example of Hellmann’s, Smith laid the blame for Unilever’s relatively weak financial performance at the door of a leadership team “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”.

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” Smith continued. “The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

Major Unilever investor says business has ‘lost the plot’ with brand purpose focus

It was exactly the kind of criticism that Peter Field’s 2021 session was meant to dispel. But, despite trademark empirical clarity, the ultimate outcome of that work was similarly counter-productive. The analysis itself was the usual first-class effort that most have come to expect from inarguably one of the great marketing thinkers of our generation. But its strangely ham-fisted positioning served to undermine the results.

Average number of very large business effects reported
All non-purpose cases 1.6
Brand purpose cases 1.1

Source: Peter Field, IPA, Effworks Global 2021

Field’s analysis demonstrated, quite clearly, that the average purpose campaign was significantly less likely to generate very strong, long-term business effects when compared with “traditional” non-purpose campaigns. That should have been the main headline of the work. But marketing is far too politically correct and too many senior marketing reputations have been built from the bricks of brand purpose for that more accurate headline to emerge.

Instead, Field went back to his data and picked the 57% of his sample of brand purpose cases that had performed strongly. He was then able to demonstrate their superiority over the whole set of non-purpose campaigns. Few were persuaded. It was like trying to prove left-footed footballers score more goals than right-footers and, when it turns out they don’t, picking only the highest-scoring lefties in order to ‘prove’ the point.

Field later acknowledged that had he compared the best-performing non-purpose sub-set against the 57% of superior purpose campaigns the results would, once again, have shown the general superiority of non-purpose campaigns over their more worthy alternatives. Stranger and stranger.

To be fair, Field made it very clear that his intent was not to defend purpose, but to make a case for it against the “fatwah” of criticism from people like Terry Smith and others closer to the marketing discipline. He made a good point but, again, it can be countered with all the purpose proponents dotted around our discipline and their equally fundamentalist adherence to the dogma of purpose. None of us – apparently – can succeed without purpose.

When I have personally criticised a brand purpose campaign in the past I have seen this dogma first hand. You receive an occasional unpleasant but emollient message questioning what kind of person you must be not to bow before the altar of brand purpose like everyone else. Is there something missing in your life? Why resist the orthodoxy of purpose? It’s a distasteful and wrong way to respond to criticism. But no better than the broad-brush dismissals of brand purpose that suggest all such efforts are mistaken.

The specific problem with averages

The polarity and over-simplicity of the brand purpose debate is the real enemy here. We need a big dose of ‘bothism’ to properly make practical sense of the ongoing brand purpose debate. Yes, brand purpose can be a very successful, effective approach. And, yes, brand purpose can be an overbaked, underthought exercise with zero impact on a brand’s commercial fortunes and massive opportunity costs to boot.

Average number of very large business effects reported
All non-purpose cases 1.6
Strong brand purpose cases 2.1

Source: Peter Field, IPA, Effworks Global 2021

Field made this very point in his presentation last year but then went on, as needs must, to revert back to averaging everything out again, thus undermining (for me) the key point of his presentation. The fact of the matter is that no marketer needs to care about the average performance of purpose versus non-purpose campaigns. It’s an entirely pointless pissing contest. Ignore Field’s average scores and focus on his bar charts – purpose can be weak, effective or stellar. It depends.

Source: Peter Field, IPA, Effworks Global 2021

And I don’t mean it depends on how well you execute your brand purpose. There is too much talk of this already in marketing; too many half-cooked analyses that ‘prove’ purpose always delivers more profit, and when it doesn’t, it’s because it was not done properly.

The reason that Pepsi failed so miserably with its purpose-wank campaign with Kendal Jenner was not (just) that the campaign execution was shithouse. It was also because the brand, the consumers, the situation were entirely unsuited to a purpose-led approach. And there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that and executing accordingly.

‘Bothism’ is the cure for marketers’ fascination with pointless conflict

Choosing not to position on purpose does not mean your organisation is evil. Indeed, there are plenty of companies quietly operating with purpose while opting not to position explicitly upon it through their marketing. For two decades, Pret a Manger has quietly taken unsold sandwiches off its shelves and, rather than discounting or dumping them, distributed them to shelters and food banks. Pret doesn’t talk much about this at all. It continues to position on fresh, handmade food instead.

I can give you an example from own business. I fully admit that part of the rationale for launching the Mini MBA in Marketing was a long-held goal to improve the quality of marketing among marketers. You might even call it a brand purpose. But I don’t use it to recruit people to our courses because most don’t care.

In fact, one of the most common pieces of feedback we get is that a newly trained marketer from the programme sincerely hopes that others do not get access to the same course, because it would reduce their newly minted competitive advantage. Purpose can exist, happily and effectively, without an explicit position that reflects it to the market.

Purpose as strategy

The fact that purpose is not a marketing prerequisite means that it is therefore a choice. A strategic choice. Because, as anyone with any experience of strategy can tell you, that is all strategy ultimately is: a series of selfish choices that entail deciding what your brand will and won’t do.

Targeting is a choice about how you do it, how many customers you chase and which ones you do and don’t go after. Objectives are a choice, again in how many you adopt and which ones you choose to focus on. And brand purpose is no different.

Seen this way, the idea of purpose as strategic choice makes perfect sense. It immediately nullifies both extremes of the visceral debate that currently surrounds brand purpose. And it offers marketers a practical answer to the purpose question.

Review your market. Review your category and the role your brand plays within it. And review your competitors, and the room that purpose would allow for distinctiveness and differentiation against them. And then make the decision. We should see more marketers explaining in 2022 why they did not opt for a brand purpose, without denigrating the whole pursuit of purpose as always flawed.

The idea of purpose as strategic choice also has extra application for multi-brand companies like Unilever, LVMH and P&G. These companies have all learned to operate using a house of brands approach in their brand architecture. That means stepping back and allowing each brand to do its own thing. What works for Peter cannot, should not, work for Pauline. And the capability to allow different flowers to bloom is one of the hardest and most important lessons of multi-brand management. And it’s a lesson that should be applied to brand purpose and the strategic choice to position on it or not. Some brands in a multi-brand group should be purpose-driven and some, by definition of market, heritage, category and competition, should not.

I’ll put half my cards on the table and confirm that I agree with Terry Smith. If Unilever executives are intent on positioning Hellmann’s or Magnum ice cream using brand purpose, then they are branding morons. But I am sure they are not. Surely a company smart enough to manage such a wide portfolio of brands so well, for so long, has grasped the fact that purpose is a strategic choice not only at the inter-corporate level but also, for organisations like Unilever with multiple brands, at the intra-corporate level too. Please confirm there is not some poor lost marketing soul currently working on the PowerPoint deck featuring a new brand purpose for Pot Noodle.

Back in 2019, Unilever published its extraordinarily over-simplistic analysis showing that its brands with purpose grew 69% faster than the rest of its businesses. Back then the company committed to a future in which “every Unilever brand will be a brand with purpose”. Surely one of the great branding companies of our lifetime is not this naïve or dogmatic? Surely, it has not forgotten the greatest generic rule of brand management: that there are no generic rules and that each brand, if it truly is a brand, should play the game differently.

And now I will lay the other half of my cards down and disagree with Terry Smith. Purpose does have a role to play for some brands in the Unilever portfolio. Clearly, the decision to build the Dove brand around the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ was not only Unilever’s finest branding hour but one of the all-time great exemplars of brand management. It worked brilliantly for Dove.

Who cares about profit?

Of course, there is a more mature, weighty argument for brand purpose, which suggests that even to try to show the commercial benefits of brand purpose is not only to enter a world of dodgy data, but also misses the whole point of purpose in the first place.

Too often marketers make this same undergraduate mistake about brand purpose. It was there in Terry Smith’s criticisms last week. And in Peter Field’s presentation last year. And Unilever’s fudged numbers back in 2019. Everyone, it seems, wants to prove that purpose will pay.

Why?

Surely you follow a purpose because of the purpose, and not the financial rewards that accrue as a result? Go further: shouldn’t a purpose cost you something, potentially everything, for it truly to be purposeful? Why do marketers make the naïve assumption that you can have your purpose cake and be paid for eating it too?

Peter Field’s definition of brand purpose is “A commitment articulated by a commercial brand or its parent company to goals other than improved profits or products, involving contribution towards one or more positive social impacts in the fields of health, the environment, human development, sustainable business practices, or other similar areas.”

It’s there, in the middle of this (outstanding) definition, staring all of us in the face. His reference to goals other than “improved profits or products” is the ultimate challenge to our over-simplistic, underwhelming obsession with brand purpose. It will prove successful for some, and not for others. And success may not mean profit or effectiveness. It might be bigger than that.

Good purpose, bad purpose: Marketers shouldn’t oversimplify the arguments

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