There has been an explosion in purpose-driven brand communication the last few years.
As Matthew Gardner at Droga5 put it, “Because of the challenge for people’s attention, purpose is the only thing that will get brands to break through. This is not a trend but more of an imperative and should be top of mind for every company.”
When every brand team jumps on the purpose bandwagon, however, the resulting communication can feel pretty shallow. There’s a risk of brands completely overstating why they exist. Particularly when their actual motivation is to capture consumer attention, brand purpose can come across as “ad-deep.” It starts to feel like just one more tick-box on a creative brief.
Shallow purpose-driven advertising can come across as silly (like when Starbucks tried to encourage conversations on racial inequality at the cash register) or disingenuous (like when McDonald’s asked customers to pay not with cash, but with “Lovin’”, against a backdrop of protests about low employee wages).
When every brand claims to stand for a deeper meaning, that claim itself can lose its meaning.
I like how Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, challenged the marketing community, “we have to stop looking at our customers as armpits that need deodorizing.”
But many brands have started taking this mission to the other extreme. By looking at brands only as causes to rally around, they risk losing touch of the customer’s actual, practical needs.
As Mark Ritson put it, “These factors have encouraged brand managers to climb all the way from product features past functional benefits and emotional advantages to the top of the ‘benefit ladder’, and emboldened them to leap dramatically into an aspirational swan dive that plummets into an ever growing sea of bullshit below.”
Here’s another cartoon I drew a few years ago on brand laddering that stretches too far.