Every now and then, during my 300 or 400 years columnizing over at Ad Age, owner/editor Rance Crain and I would stage a catfight. I’d assert one thing, he would assert the opposite, and the fur would fly. It was easy to do because we agreed on so little -- but fun, because I got to call the boss names. Insubordination, however contrived, is always good for a few yucks.
Sigh. Not anymore. Rance is no longer my boss; I suppose, in fact, he’s my competitor. So no matter how dumb a position he takes, name-calling would be ungentlemanly.
So I’ll go right to the vulgarity. Yo, Rance, WTF?
Your column last week, titled “Is the era of purpose-driven ads (finally) over?” was just so wildly screwed up in so many ways, I wondered if you were huffing the printers’ ink. You conflated a handful of concepts -- marketing with purpose, cause-related marketing and purpose-driven advertising (whatever that is) -- as if they were all the same thing.
Let’s start there: they aren’t the same. Purpose-driven marketing is nothing more aerie-fairie than figuring out why you drag your sorry butt out of bed every morning. What does your brand do that makes anyone better off, and how can you maximize those benefits? It is not a positioning. It is not a slogan. It is a raison d’etre that informs every brand action and inaction from the C-suite to the loading dock. It is not merely happy talk for employees or customers. It is the North Star in a brand relationship with all stakeholders.
You hang your premise on the case of Procter & Gamble, where CEO Robert McDonald and CMO Marc Pritchard (and his predecessor Jim Stengel) have, as you say, “carried the message to podiums across the world.” But you have chosen a poor example. Yes, P&G has been positively evangelical about purpose, but it is also a company that talks the talk without much walking the walk. Brand managers have to go through the exercise of divining a brand purpose, but their career paths and compensation are tied to the same old metrics of the P&G brand-management system.
There is no concrete incentive to embrace the kind of Relationship Era marketing that is conducive to doing business purposefully. There is a great incentive to do price promotion and retail end caps. Yet when P&G does fully embrace purpose-driven marketing, as it did with Secret antiperspirant, the outcome both lifted sales and spirits of women worldwide -- not to mention a very motivated team in Cincinnati.
Why you are suspicious of human uplift is a mystery to me. I can almost see you high-fiving yourself, Rance, after making this observation: “…if this approach catches on, one company's noble and uplifting pitch will not be much different from another company's, and we'll not only have parity products but parity nobility and uplift.” Zing. It does momentarily sound like you’ve located a logical flaw in brand purposefulness. Alas, however, you have incinerated a straw man.
Purpose is not a campaign or a gimmick or PR window dressing. It is not positioning. It does not aim to be differentiating. Purposefulness is an ethic. A worldview. A mentality. And it is not merely the right way for brands -- and all institutions -- to operate in a digitally connected world. It is the only way. Loss of mass-media reach, involuntary transparency, social media chatter and shifting values in the society are increasingly obsoleting advertising persuasion. We are now living and doing business in the Relationship Era, in which everyone is now not only judged for far more than dictated ad and PR messages, but for more than even the goods and services themselves.
People increasingly place value in values. Every brand is being evaluated 24/7 based on its inner self. Ask BP, Johnson & Johnson, United Airlines, Bank of America, Chick-fil-A, Progressive Insurance, Appleby’s and Research in Motion what their billions upon billions of dollars worth of advertising have earned them lately.
Hint: the answer is not “trust.” In a socially mediated world, indifference is expensive, hostility is unaffordable and trust is priceless.
I lifted that thought from Can’t Buy Me Like -- the book Doug Levy and I wrote, and which launched last week. It's jam-packed with data and vivid case histories illustrating how such such purpose-driven brands as Zappos, Patagonia, Panera, Krispy Kreme, Ikea and Southwest Airlines outperform their competitors in any metric you care to choose -- and do so with significantly lower promotional expense.
I encourage you to pick up a copy or 5000. But if you don’t want to read the whole book, you can read the trade-magazine article that spawned it. It was titled "The Human Element" and was shared by inspired readers nearly 3000 times.
It appeared, 14 months ago, in Ad Age.