The problem with purpose-led ads

by Claudia Byrnes

Millennials do prefer brands that are linked to social responsibility and brand purpose has been touted as the future for marketing leaders but few are getting it right. Here’s why.

At the beginning of the year a lot has been said and written about the Gillette’s infamous ‘Best Men Can Be’ ad. From praise to shame and everything in between.

According to a Forbes article for example, Gillette made a mistake by attaching themselves to a political issue. The article suggests they would have been better off picking a ‘safe’ issue to attach themselves to. In the author’s words, ‘it’s best to choose a relatively uncontroversial cause or issue to weigh in on’ if you would like to run a purpose-led ad.

Is it really best to choose an uncontroversial issue? Is that really the problem with Gillette’s “CSR ad”?

No, the real problem is brands picking a cause, running an ad and ‘pretending’ to be advocates without real actions backing their advocacy claims.

In the case of Gillette, how much better would that ad have been received if Gillette was known as a brand that’s an advocate in the fight against domestic violence in Australia for example? How much more authentic and credible would their campaign have been in Australia?

Without that, the controversy was understandable because it’s indeed a bit of a stretch from here:

…to being an advocate for new masculinity in their latest ad.

So why that radical departure from its past? Well, it’s no secret anymore in the marketing world that millennials do prefer brands that are linked to social responsibility. Countless surveys vouch for that. One of them is Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand report with one of the key outtakes that ‘opting out of taking a stand is no longer an option for brands. Whether people are shopping for soap or shoes (or razors for that matter), they’re weighing a brand’s principles as much as its products.’

Most marketers have clued onto to that by now and brand purpose has been touted as the future for most marketing leaders. So a lot of marketers are scrambling for a ‘brand purpose’ and brief their agencies to do a ‘CSR ad’. Because that’s what consumers are asking for.

But Millennials are not stupid. They can spot a fake a mile away. If there is no substance to the CSR claim to fame, that’s when companies really put themselves into ‘hot water’… not because they are attaching themselves to a controversial issue.

Using Gillette as an example again, P&G missed a big opportunity here. If you dig deep enough on P&G’s corporate website, ironically, you do find a substantial sustainability strategy with pillars such as ‘Gender Equality’. A strategy no one has ever heard of. A similar picture to what you’ll find in a lot of Australian companies.. somewhere in corporate headquarters, there is a sustainability team most likely squirreling away on sustainability strategies no one’s ever heard of and probably struggling to get budget to get their initiatives off the ground. Whilst on the other hand there is a marketing department scrambling for brand purpose.

The missed opportunity here? Well, P&G and Gillette had the opportunity to create an authentic marketing campaign off the back of a genuine sustainability strategy with an ad that has some backbone to it. They could have created so much more than one ad that creates talkability for a few weeks…but bring a number of initiatives to life that truly help ‘men to be the best they can be’. They could have made a genuine difference to a whole lot of people beyond an ad and could tell these stories for years to come with Gillette’s brand KPIs going through the roof in the long term…something an ad alone will never deliver.

So the real problem with purpose-led ads is the lack of genuine substance, ie tangible action to back up their claim. Marketers need to start talking to their sustainability counterparts and look for purpose that is truly embedded in the business and stop creating hollow CSR ads…then doing good, would be actually good for business.


Here at Republic of Everyone we bring brands, sustainability and creativity together to make doing good, good for business. 

Call us +61 2 8097 8746, email or drop us a line below if you would like to find out more about us. 

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