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Brief Published: 12 Dec 2019

In Defence of Brand Purpose

Ben & Jerry's Justice Remix'd

In this end-of-year comment from Christian Ward, our head of Media & Marketing, he argues that despite backlash in 2019, being purpose-driven is still important to ensure marketing remains relevant – not just to consumers, but as a discipline in itself.

2019 began with a backlash against brand purpose. After Gillette's controversial attempt to tackle toxic masculinity in January, many commentators decided enough was enough. "Brand purpose is a lie," said one piece in US business publication Fast Company. "[Brand purpose is] a passing fancy that gets in the way of proper brand management," said ad guru Mark Ritson at Advertising Week Europe in March. Would there be a huge retreat by marketers away from taking a stand?

Dismissing purposeful marketing is easy, because the mishaps often make a bigger impact than the successes (see Pepsi and Kendall Jenner). More importantly, some brands touting purpose to consumers are anything but ethical in terms of business practices. And the data around millennial and Gen Z desire for cause marketing doesn't always match reality – 92% of Gen Z say they would switch to brands associated with a good cause, given similar price and quality (Cone, 2017). As we discovered in our Towards Our Sustainable Future Macro Trend, 92% of US consumers cannot correctly match more than half of brands to the cause or stand they promote (Shelton, 2018).

But purpose is not solely about aligning yourself to a cause. It's as much about enhancing the brand messages you put out there – across all your work.

You either believe marketing and advertising can have an impact or you don't. If you do, then you have to acknowledge the negative side of that impact – years of sexist, racist, and homophobic stereotyping, feeding into harmful narratives. Has that situation changed? To a great extent it has, but there is a long way to go, and part of the problem is that brands are still not taking the issue seriously enough: 91% of marketers think they portray women positively, while 45% of audiences disagree (Kantar, 2019).

If you believe marketing and advertising can have an impact, then surely you have a responsibility to ensure that impact is positive? In 2020, it's imperative for every brand to view their work through that filter – whether or not you're trying to save the world in the process.