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The Purpose of Brand Purpose

The release of new research from Peter Field has re-ignited the debate on this marmite marketing topic. 

Structured Debate 

The research (released as part of the IPA’s EffWorks conference) was a first attempt at adding rigour to an often unstructured and emotionally charged debate. Indeed, it’s likely that the most valuable contribution of this research is in providing a working definition to the debate. 

Brand Purpose: “A commitment articulated by a commercial brand or its parent company to goals other than improved profits or products, involving contribution towards one or more positive social impacts in the fields of health, the environment, human development, sustainable business practices, or other similar areas.” (Peter Field, 2021) 

Previous purpose debates have been stunted by competing interpretations. For some, purpose exists as a subfield of brand management and must be part of a long-term growth strategy; for others, it is simply purpose for purpose’s sake. 

Sharp Critique 

The broader effectiveness community has historically been critical of Brand Purpose initiatives. Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson have led the charge here – labelling Brand Purpose advocates as ‘apologists for marketing.’ Indeed, Sharp and Richard Shotton have specifically criticised Field’s research – with Shotton labelling the methodology as ‘flawed’. While there is clear selection bias in Field’s study (this is recognised up front) criticisms of the research miss a more important point. In an age of increased corporate transparency and micro-activism, Brand Purpose is likely to have increased relevance. Well executed campaigns represent a route to more sustainable Brand Equity in a more socially conscious era. Despite this, there are almost no academic or commercial studies on Purpose; and as such Field’s study is both a valuable contribution and a stimulus for further work. 

The research clarified the opportunity for Purpose campaigns to burnish the Employer brand – improving reputation among partners, employees and investors far more efficiently than non-purpose campaigns. The analysis also highlighted the high variability of B2C returns from Purpose campaigns. Surely the key lesson of the research is for marketers to tailor their message and targeting more heavily towards relevant B2B audiences and Internal Comms. 

Nascent but Prescient 

Field’s research is an important first step. The depth and breadth of the cases analysed are less than ideal, and the research has not unequivocally demonstrated either the imperative or folly in investing in purpose campaigns. Nevertheless, it does offer valuable guidance on where to focus efforts and recognises gaps in the research.  In a more socially conscious age and, with the real and urgent threat of climate change, it is wise for brands to plot routes to profit with fewer externalities. Brand Purpose campaigns can play an important role in stimulating and illuminating positive changes to corporate behaviour