J. Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing, Kantar, provided an historical context for the current movement by advertisers to associate their brands with broader social purpose.
He began by arguing that even though the current public health crisis is caused by a unique global pandemic, that it should be viewed as a disruption – a variant of a type of event more familiar to us. Disruptions are normal. Even though we had something of an anomalous holiday from them during the 80s and 90s, they have returned with more normal frequency since 2000. Disruptions often clear the way for underlying trends to become more visible and, in some ways, disruptions can accelerate those underlying trends. He views the rising importance of purpose-led advertising campaigns as an example of this.
In Walker’s historical account, advertising in the early 20th century focused initially on the attributes and benefits of the product. This was the Era of Product: of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and of claims that one’s product was better than the competitor’s product. Beginning in the mid-1960s, there was a cultural shift toward individual expression and advertising reflected this in the “creative revolution” (led by figures like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach) who shifted ad creative to be about being your better self. In this Era of Person, people bought brands because they wanted to be like the people who used that brand or were seen to use that brand. Advertising became a way of expressing identity aspirations and of making oneself a better person. That lasted nearly 50 years and is still present in much of advertising; but beginning in the 2000s and especially after the financial crisis of 2008, advertising started shifting into the new Era of Public. In this time, the public increasingly looks to brands to stand for some purpose that serves the greater good, that helps to build a better society. To bolster this point, he presented global Kantar survey data showing a 2017-2019 rise from 51% to 65% in the percentage of consumers saying that it is important for brands to be committed to building a better society. Similar findings can be found in data from the Edelman Trust Barometer, the Conference Board, and other sources.
From this perspective, the trend toward purpose marketing was well underway before Covid-19 hit, but the disruption has made the trend more visible and acted as an accelerant. Ironically, it arrives at a moment when consumers trust brands less but expect them to do more in their public roles. Brands need to be seen as looking after their employees, supporting those in need, providing reassurance, and generally being helpful and informative about what they are doing to face a difficult situation. He provided some examples of brands setting a positive social example and stepping into their public roles with ameliorative actions and reassuring advertising messages.
Paul Donato, Chief Research Officer, ARF, introduced the study Cracking Brand Purpose commissioned by the ARF from Kantar. The study was built from a cross section of 45 ad campaigns that had won awards (ARF David Ogilvy Award, WARC, Cannes Lions) but that had also involved brand purpose as a central theme. In the study, Kantar analyzed the social media conversation about the ads to get a flavor of their reception by the public, and it also interviewed the agency principals behind the advertising. Paul foregrounded the Kantar presentation by saying that successful purpose ads had to be rooted in brand strategy with a tight link between the brand’s DNA and the purpose with which it engages. Authenticity is imperative and the ad must effectively activate emotions. Purpose ads need not be expensive: examples from the Ogilvy database (an HP ad was cited as example) show otherwise. But they do have to get the emotional pitch right.
Sarah Capers, Head of Brand, North America, Kantar, took the audience through the details of the Cracking Brand Purpose study. The study synthesizes Kantar’s qualitative assessment of the ad creative and the input from the one-on-one interviews with the creators of those campaigns. The lessons and observations are presented as a series of workshop tools, suggestions and questions that brands should ask themselves. These include:
- Be yourself. The best purpose campaigns seem obvious because they are a reflection of the brand’s DNA going back in the brand’s history. (NY Times, Levi, and Volvo were offered as example)
- Be about them. Purpose campaigns should not be bragging about the brand but should about the people you care about.
- Involve them. Purpose campaigns do well to involve the supporters of that purpose in the creative development.
- Engage in the cultural conversation. Be attuned to the debates occurring in the moment and engage there. Examples from Carrefour and Gillette were offered.
- Walk the walk. Brands should not just talk but should do something useful related to the purpose they advocate. Better yet, give the audience something that they can do too.
- Facilitate effectiveness through recognizable visual or audio cues.
- Be in it for the long haul. Ad campaign should not be crisis-specific or a one-off stunt.