Brand Purpose: is it really all misguided?

A view from Peter Field.

Peter Field gives his reply to the 'hysterical' industry reaction to his new research on brand purpose, published at EffWorks Global 2021.

It was perhaps inevitable that any study that dared to question the vocal criticism of brand purpose would provoke an hysterical response: positions had already been publicly stated and minds already made up. So I was expecting it and indeed predicted it – but what I wasn’t expecting was that some responses would be delivered before the presentation had even been made or the full findings revealed. But, clearly, for many people this is an emotional issue, not a rational one.

Anyone who attended my presentation at EffWorks Global 2021, or watched the video of it on the IPA EffWorks website, will know that I dispensed criticism and praise of brand purpose in equal measure. My hope was to re-open minds so that a more constructive debate about brand purpose could begin. Instead, sadly, the debate has been focussed largely around the methodology employed. This, I also predicted and indeed was careful to address in the presentation. For the record, no-one has ‘called me out’ on this – I have been open and upfront for many months about the limitations of the approach and the need for caution in interpretation. It is also customary to view methodology in the context of study objectives, which only those who have heard the presentation could have done, so let me re-iterate these for everyone else.

The objective was not to elevate brand purpose, which, as I made clear in my opening charts performed poorly in general. My objectives were to see if all brand purpose performed poorly and, if not, whether there was anything useful we could learn from the better performers. The inbuilt observation throughout was that brand purpose was in general less effective across most, but not all, metrics than other advertising approaches and at the very least needed to improve its act. But, if you keep an open mind, such findings do not necessarily justify discarding brand purpose in its entirety. Arguably, finding any sizeable number of cases that can demonstrate strong effectiveness metrics should be enough to make us at least question whether a blanket criticism of purpose is justified – and in fact over half the purpose cases did so. This is a lower percentage than for other approaches, as I repeatedly pointed out, but still surely enough to prompt constructive engagement.

Additionally, it turned out that these more effective purpose cases were quite different in nature in some important ways from the others, and so perhaps deserved closer attention. They weren’t simply a lucky few that bucked the trend – they had identifiable strengths that we can learn from. We of course profiled the effective cases vs. the others to ensure that there were no obvious reasons for their success deriving from budget, sector, brand size or any of the other context factors that can help effectiveness. And we also found that brand purpose in general enjoyed some unique and useful strengths amongst B2B stakeholders such as investors.

But why should anyone want to cut Brand Purpose any slack and why on earth am I voluntarily choosing to provoke the anger of the critics? I tried to explain this in my presentation.

Firstly, I argued that purpose is a relatively new discipline in advertising – a new tool. It hasn’t had the benefit of decades of learning to optimise its technique and guide its use. It is currently in its infancy and therefore inevitably fallible, so holding it to the same standards of performance of established techniques is illogical. If we did this with every new advertising development, we would end up with an ossified rule book that suppresses innovation.

Secondly, I argued that whether we like it or not, there is likely to be a tidal wave of ESG-related purpose advertising heading our way. ESG pressures on companies are intense and, around the world, they are signing up to challenging environmental targets and huge investment associated with these. Naturally, as consumer scrutiny grows, businesses are worried about being seen to be on the wrong side of history – laggards that were forced to improve their act. And many are concerned about new challengers with ESG credentials baked-in from the outset. Maximising their return on the investments they have made is a sensible advertising objective – even if it involves the risks of being the first mover. It has been argued for many years that marketing must engage more closely with the business agendas of the C-suite to raise its influence. Are we now saying ‘but we didn’t mean with ESG issues’? Surely it is better to embrace brand purpose, through constructive criticism and by finding ways to improve its consumer effectiveness, than it is to sit Canute-like and attempt to stop the tide? So I choose the former.

I ended my presentation by warning that purpose, done badly, leads to poor outcomes. I genuinely share the concern of those who see a real danger to brands in the diversion of advertising budgets to ill-disciplined or non-credible brand purpose. It is one of a number of threats facing brands these days. So… let’s work calmly to introduce some discipline into the practice to improve its effectiveness. Let’s give praise when it is due and save our scorn for where it is justified. If we truly have the best interests of brands at heart, surely helping them to achieve these new goals and even profit from them, must be our mission?

Watch Peter Field's Effworks Global 2021 session 

Last updated 10 November 2021