Brand purpose advertising has had a prolonged moment in the sun. Dove Sketches is almost a decade old -- and in the intervening period, every washing powder, vodka and bread manufacturer has articulated a world-changing mission that stretches far beyond its brand and product.
Much-cited statistics told us that millennials were more likely to buy from brands with a strong purpose, and as an industry we bought that datapoint hook, line and anthemic ad. Like actress Gal Gadot and her “Imagine” collaborators -- a bunch of mostly non-singer famous folks attempting to warble the song, later roundly criticized -- we convinced ourselves that people needed to hear what we had to say.
This strategy has been showing cracks for a while -- “Saturday Night Live” was spoofing it in 2017. In the “decade of purpose,” we’ve seen a corresponding decline in advertising effectiveness and likeability. I don’t mean to commit the ultimate planner sin of confusing correlation and causation, but part of the reason our work is failing to connect with consumers might well be that brands began speaking more about culture than themselves.
The “strange and uncertain times” (source: every brand’s email copywriter) we’re now living in have a knock-on effect of further laying bare the flaws behind the superficial pursuit of purpose. Part of the problem is that now every brand seems to have a world-changing mission; they all overlap. The strategy of connecting your brand to a cultural narrative seemed logical when there were multiple narratives to choose from, but when there is only one, all brands begin to look and sound the same.
You see the limitations of that approach in the endless emails that assume consumers all want to know that a brand is “there for them during this tough time.” You see it in the seemingly creative but ultimately meaningless logo separation stunts. And you see it in advertising, where every brand attempts to link their product to the crisis in some way, spoofed in the “Every covid ad looks the same” video doing the rounds.
The irony is that it was ever thus. Even pre-COVID, our consumers had much bigger things on their mind than our brands. The situation cannot be ignored, given the scale of the “other thing on their minds.”
But in this challenge, perhaps lies the silver lining. There’s nothing like an existential crisis to force some perspective (my therapist would agree). As agencies, we are fuel for a capitalist system that is on pause. We are selling oil to a world that has no use for driving. And rather than pumping more of the stuff into the atmosphere, to stretch the metaphor even further, we need to rediscover our value; to find meaningful roles for our brands in the world, based on honesty and truth -- not overblown ambition -- and to create things that people actually like.
That purpose might lie in making things of actual value, like LVMH producing hand sanitizer, or in saying something of interest through the lens of your brand idea, like Bud’s revival of “Wassup.” Not every brand can, or needs to, save the world. But every brand needs a lane -- and perhaps this crisis will help us get back in them. In other words: Don’t be Gal Gadot.