The Pull Agency
2022 - What’s in store (and online!) for Health and Beauty?
Social Purpose and Brands – A Match Made in Heaven?
Is The Social Purpose Bandwagon Running Out Of Steam?
Blog / Brand

Is The Social Purpose Bandwagon Running Out Of Steam?

In advocating for causes that they personally support, have marketers forgotten that it's not about them?

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot.

“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).” – Terry Smith, Unilever shareholder and Fund Manager, Jan 2022.

In allowing the financial community to prick their social purpose bubble, marketers have done themselves another dis-service. Their lack of basic business acumen was vividly highlighted when share activist Terry Smith pointed out that Unilever’s obsession with brand purpose seemed to coincide with its lacklustre performance.

Adland’s reaction? With one or two notable exceptions was to defend the social purpose bandwagon as both the most effective marketing tool in the box and of course ‘the right thing to do’. No evidence in support of these two assertions was provided. Thus further undermining an impression among the ‘more serious’ disciplines in business, that marketing has forfeit its right to be represented in the boardroom.

So time is running out for unfettered interpretations of brand purpose. What Terry Smith pointed out – thereby stripping the purpose emperor (Alan Jope) of much of his clothes –  was the absurdity of re-purposing the word purpose.

A sign that a daft idea has reached its nadir is when peak absurdity seems to have been reached. A good example is probably the recent purpose initiative by Mars Inc. owned M&Ms. Good old worthy Mars has jumped on the social purpose boat a bit late, and met a wave of cynical derision that it doesn’t fully deserve. I think this is more a result of being the latecomer to the purpose party, leaping on just as the tide is turning (sorry about the extended maritime metaphor).


So M&Ms saw something of a re-launch in January of this year by re-defining their brand purpose as a:

“Global commitment to creating a world where everyone feels they belong”

What are the key brand initiatives that will drive this? Mars themselves defines them as:

·        More ‘nuanced’ (bland) individual candy personalities
·        A ‘more fun’ colour palette
·        ‘More emphasis on the ampersand’ (no really)
·        An updated tone of voice (more of their ‘signature jester wit and humour’)

One thing I am certain of – the new M&Ms brand persona will be less and not more humorous than it has been in the past. This has been the trend of advertising for at least 20 years and one of the subjects the Pull Agency probed in our recent research. Annoyance with TV advertising, is according to BBH labs the subject on which public opinion has most changed over the last 20 years.

Mars see the targets of this social purpose effort to be progressive Gen Z-ers. Well they would wouldn’t they. Because we all know that Gen Z will only buy brands with purpose don’t we? (actually another evidence-free claim. For sure Gen-Z claim to be more motivated by brands with social purpose, but the evidence that they are more likely to buy them – let alone pay more for them – is sorely absent).

So what’s the problem with the M&Ms initiative? Or rather, what’s the main problem? I would say that this has been adroitly pinpointed by Kimberly Whitler in her LinkedIn article.

The whole thing is based on an ‘untested hypothesis’. For a business with a legacy of highly effective and evidence-based marketing, this is what peak absurdity can deliver.

In picking ‘belonging’ as its cause, M&Ms is hardly making the most egregious selection among the most woke things possible (that award goes unequivocally to Ben & Jerry’s). However, it is still ‘point of view marketing’. That is to say that its marketers have picked a point of view that they personally agree with and want to advocate for. However, they appear to have done this without any consideration for the consumer in all this. And however worthy and even uncontroversial the cause, firstly, creating a link with that cause and producing and selling candy is obviously tortuous, (it’s ‘added purpose’), secondly, how do they know that their customers share their worldview, let alone will see M&Ms as being a key enabler of it?

What if their customers don’t share the brand managers’ worldview? Where’s the work to evidence the hypothesis that M&Ms can build their brand and their business through ‘belonging’? Did they test it? Did they see if their customers felt it made sense?

So a hundred time more so with Ben & Jerry’s. Have they got the required evidence to show that their customers share their worldview on say the right way to deal with the crisis in the Ukraine? What if only a minority of Ben & Jerry’s brand buyers share their marketers viewpoints on the West Bank, Ukraine, BLM, 'climate justice' and migration, and as Kimberly Whitler points out – the academic evidence is that promoting a political viewpoint is unlikely to strengthen your brand with those who share your view – but is likely to lead to a boycott from those who hold a strongly opposing view. Of course Ben & Jerry's right-on marketers will claim that they are doing the right thing, and making a stand regardless of what their customers think. But how do they know they have the 'right' view on all these political subjects? And what on earth have these subjects got to do with ice cream – where's the skin in the game?

So where is the consumer in all this? is the question the Pull Agency set out to ask – particularly because the brand and other agency advocates of brand social purpose have not. We know what the financial community thinks of brand purpose, we know what the marketing community thinks, but what about the consumer? Surely the science of marketing is to achieve such a deep understanding and empathy with your customers that you can generate insights that will strengthen your brand and build the business. If so, then what has this political lecturing and (often trying to ‘correct’ your customer’s worldview) got to do with marketing? No wonder people find brand's communications increasingly annoying.

And just to be clear, I'm not undermining the idea that brands can benefit from a more worthy purpose than simply making money - at the Pull Agency we have helped many brands find and articulate a more worthy purpose in what they already do. But what I am suggesting is that the process of cloaking your brand in virtue simply by attaching un-related woke causes to it has been rumbled. If the marketing community hasn't worked that out yet, the financial community and the consumer has.

All will soon be revealed when we present findings of our ‘Is your Brand too Woke? survey of more than 2,000 UK consumers. In it we asked consumers what they thought of woke brand communications, and how they wanted brands to behave in regard to social responsibility. We weren’t surprised by what we found, but we think many purpose-obsessed marketers will be.

(Research to be presented at an event in London on 24th March.


Posted 11 February 2022 by Chris Bullick