Misplaced ‘Purposeful Marketing’ is Annoying

May 11, 2015 / Features

By Ivo Roefs

It’s as if a new race has begun: Who is the new champion in social involvement? In many cases, the contenders aren’t credible at all.

Every agency, every awards organisation and every judge has asked themselves, or has been posed, the following question at least once: which campaigns have a good chance of winning?

As I was pondering this question, I caught myself thinking: “I bet it’ll be a charity again”. Because whichever awards festival you look at, charities are always among the winners.

Also, I recently attended a meeting on “being a meaningful brand” – a topic that was immediately linked to supporting social themes or sponsoring charities.

And this led me to a feeling of annoyance about our trade, which I’ve been harbouring for a while now. It is a growing annoyance – and it is an annoyance that I feel is actually more interesting than speculating on who will take the stage at the end of this event [The SpinAwards in Amasterdam].

So whether you like it or not, I’ll be discussing this annoyance with you, and leave you to make up your own minds on who the winners will be. My tip, then: charities.

Charities have been very successful in the past few years – not only on stage and at awards festivals, but also in the marketing plans for a wide variety of brands. It’s almost as if a new race has begun: which brand distributes its sponsorship budget most nobly? Who is the champion of social involvement?

You may be thinking: how can Roefs possibly have a problem with this? Isn’t it a good thing that companies and brands are finally assuming some responsibility in this field? Shouldn’t I be happy for the good souls who help seals and fight illiteracy, now that a big company has finally given them a proper budget to help them do their good deeds? For the environmental crusaders, who owe their continued existence to a soap factory and a coal-burning energy corporation? Let me tell you: I’m very happy for them!

But let me tell you this as well: in many cases, such alliances lack all credibility for me. Which is why I think that this entire trend is overshooting its mark, however well-intentioned it may be.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand where it all comes from. The economic crisis has triggered a collective allergy to commerciality. “Greed is good” – Gordon Gekko’s motto in Wall Street – has become a contaminated phrase. Because that same greed has now thrown our economy into the deep end. In the 1980s and 1990s, “big and successful” was a compliment. Now it just makes many consumers suspicious. We see that every day, in studies. And we hear it in focus groups.

As always in hard times, people are looking for hope, faith and trust. Which has led many brands to think: “Let’s do something with CSR” – corporate social responsibility. That’s the modern thing to do! That’s what consumers want us to do! And just like that, under the banner of “purposeful marketing” and “corporate social responsibility”, an entirely new field has arisen in our trade.

In my mind, things usually get stuck on those two words: “purpose” and “responsibility”.
Not because I don’t think brands can have a purpose or be responsible – I think they can.
But what I see is that most brands forgo that essential first step: defining what their own purpose is.

Because it is only if you’ve figured that out – if you have seriously examined and stated what your brand’s passion really is – that you can sponsor a social purpose in a credible and passionate way. And feel truly responsible for it.

Let me give you a few examples. If Procter & Gamble calls itself  “proud sponsor of moms”, I believe it without reservation. Because moms, that’s P&G’s bread and butter. Moms – that’s who they make products for. They spend all their days thinking about moms, if all is well. So that’s a credible obsession and responsibility for that company: empowering mothers.

Here’s another example. American Express’s “Small Business Saturday” – I get it. Amex wants to be a meaningful partner to small-business owners and it used that promotion to provide relevance to that group.

These are all examples that were conceived from a thorough understanding of what these brands want to represent. This is a completely different proposition from simply tagging your budget and logo onto a random charity or social theme, and then hoping that that will help you rise on parameters like “noble”, “involved” and “sympathetic”.

Just to be clear: this story is not about those charities that manage to do well under their own steam. It’s a very good thing for our trade to use its creativity for non-commercial ends every now and then. (Even though – and I am wording this carefully on purpose – you have to be careful not to mix up your own interests with your client’s.)

The point is – and this is where I’ll finally mention some examples – that I really do not see what the connection is between some big organisations and the social theme they are connected with. Other than, of course, opportunistically pushing brand awareness.

It may be superfluous, but I’d like to draw your attention to the “Why”, “What” and “How” from Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. If you do not know this story, you are one of the very last to discover it, and I encourage you to look it up on YouTube as soon as I finish this introduction. 

Every brand should place itself in Simon Sinek’s place and discover what the real “Why” of its existence is – before coming up with a social theme that the brand can and should connect to in a credible way.

What is the true purpose of your brand? What is the obsession that is real and credible?

Which is not the same as asking: which obsession can we benefit from today? Or: let’s do something really cool with this for a few months, and then move on to the next thing. Because if you really believe in your convictions, and if you feel responsible as a brand – that implies a long-term commitment, not a temporary campaign theme. If a conviction, a theme, a topic does NOT flow through a brand’s veins, then that brand should simply stay away from it.

I fear that this story of mine may have caused some restlessness at the boards of a lot of foundations – and that is not something I set out to do. I think every committee and every social theme deserves to have a sponsor – one that is as generous as possible.

But such collaborations must be based on a deeper meaning, one that goes beyond jumping on the latest bandwagon. Because if sponsoring is a temporary fad, then the charity will not benefit from it in the long term.

And I do not believe that any brand ever benefitted from doing things that were not credible.
So let me end with an appeal. And let me say right from the start: this is not a moral appeal, but one based on professional conviction. Let us resolve to reward ideas and strategies that are truly aligned with a brand’s “why”. And not ideas that simply happen to reflect a social topic that is fashionable.


Ivo Roefs is Co-CEO at DDB & Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam.

This is a translation of an article originally published on Adformatie.

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