Do You Want Mayo With That? Putting Purpose on the Marketing Menu

By Kevin O’Farrell, Associate Vice President of Analytic Partners

Imagine a scene: a darkened room with three titans of marketing theory, Peter Field, Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp, gathered around a table, at its centre, under a spotlight, sits a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise.

Is it the moment of truth in a dramatic stage play? Is it a tense standoff over who is going to make the marketing team’s sandwiches? No — it’s because Hellman’s has become the perhaps unlikely ingredient in the continuing heated debate around the pros and cons of purpose-led marketing.

Enter stage left, fund manager Terry Smith lambasting Unilever for what he described as its “ludicrous” fixation with brand purpose including attempts to define the ‘purpose’ of, among others, Hellman’s Mayonnaise (surely the marketing team’s sandwiches??).

Brand purpose has been a topic du jour for some time and becoming ever more ubiquitous with the embedding of ESG policies into corporate vernacular. While having a brand purpose may feel like it’s an inherently ‘good’ thing — and therefore an inherently bad thing not to have — trying to quantify the effectiveness, or not, of purpose is a Herculean task.

Back to our titans of marketing for their views on brand purpose.

At the recent IPA EffWorks Global 2021 Conference, effectiveness expert Peter Field outlined his case for the potential power of brand purpose campaigns using his new analysis from the IPA Effectiveness Awards Databank. He concluded: “…there can be considerable benefits for companies in deploying brand purpose campaigns — both for engaging their own employees, stakeholders and investors as well as for driving customer sales. When it is done well, when it is genuine and credible, brand purpose can be very powerful.”

Mark Ritson looked at Peter Field’s analysis and pointed out what Field had mentioned anyway: picking 57% of his sample of brand purpose cases that had performed strongly might have skewed results slightly. The average purpose campaign was significantly less likely to generate very strong, long-term business effects when compared with “traditional” non-purpose campaigns. No big surprise there.

But for Ritson, marketers are especially at risk of clinging to ‘purpose’ for political correctness’s sake. Purpose is everywhere these days — like the Hellmann’s case stresses. Or remember when Coca-Cola thought they could jump on the BLM bandwagon?

Lesson learned, I guess.  Ritson says that purpose, just like other marketing tools, should be a strategic choice. It will prove successful for some and not for others, and that ‘success’ must be predefined as it may not actually translate into profit or effectiveness.

Meanwhile marketing professor and author, Byron Sharp, emphasizes the profit angle, arguing that purpose — naturally — should not be linked to profit or sales — and therefore can’t be linked to ROI.

He argues that the widespread adoption of social purpose could lead to brands becoming too similar and consequently being picked off by private labels. Again, not every FMCG product might have more of a purpose than cost — or taste—effectively feeding its target group.

So far, so confusing.

But it needn’t be so. Purpose should be treated in the same way as any other marketing activity. Before you take any action, you have to start with the simple question: what’s the KPI?

When looking to implement and measure purpose, you have to ask: what’s my KPI, is it revenue, profit or consumer love? And when you know what success looks like, embed it in your strategy and make sure you have the analytics to measure it.

Once you have your KPI set and as you embark, our marketing titans are on hand to guide:  being aware that purpose does not just equal branding and may have pitfalls (Sharp), that you need a really strong case (Field) and making sure that using purpose truly fits the brand and differentiates in the market (Ritson), so it will not just be another purpose-spread on the short-term marketing sandwich.

Furthermore, when we look at it as a marketing tool and measure ROI, purpose is not an island, it needs to be linked to the creative. This is imperative because creative work gets more attention and drives ROI — our ROI Genome data shows that two thirds of ROI is linked to creative execution. Brands can’t just copy other brands when it comes to purpose, they need to authentically talk their own talk and walk their own walk.

And if they can’t — well, then brand purpose is not for them. There are clear and present examples of brands that have made purpose meaningful and valuable. From full-on purpose-built brands such as Patagonia — probably the best example for true purpose, with its ethical production — to a brand like Dove whose ‘real beauty’ work demonstrated how purpose works for the brand and the consumer (as well as for sales and profit). Even not-so-much-reeking-of-purpose Pampers managed to find true purpose with their UNICEF vaccine campaign and used it across campaigns and in-store to great effect.

And look at a business — like McDonald’s — which has had to weather its fair share of negative press over the years for its business practices — has started promoting plant-based products. But this isn’t McDonald’s trying to claim it is saving the planet (hard when it’s still selling meat products), it is Maccy D’s staying true to its inherent purpose and promise of feeding many for an affordable price at the same quality around the world.

Now pass me that jar of Hellman’s!

About the Author

Kevin O’Farrell leads the Analytic Partners client engagement team in EMEA, turning data into expertise to drive competitive advantage for brands across the region. His industry experience spans Consumer Goods to Financial Services, Hospitality, Retail and Electronics. Originally from an academic background, Kevin is interested in going beyond the sales impact of marketing, looking at a bigger picture.

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