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Purpose-driven marketing


The purpose of purpose-driven marketing

Published 27 July 2022 in Purpose • 7 min read

Consumers want companies to go further in addressing issues that affect wider society. For those willing to do so, a marketing-led competitive advantage is up for grabs.

One of the strengths of marketing as a discipline is its agility in responding to changing market conditions. Purpose-driven marketing is a strong example of this. Designed to showcase a brand’s commitment to higher order impact, purpose-driven marketing promises more to its stakeholders and wider society than simply high quality products and services. Beyond “giving back” and creating “common good”, this approach can enable profitable growth for companies by increasing brand appeal and customer loyalty in an increasingly vigilant and demanding marketplace.

While some see “purpose” as just another management buzzword, purpose-driven companies have been on the rise for years. There has been a fundamental shift in leadership approach, with companies no longer considering purpose as a worthy but peripheral CSR or philanthropic activity that can be dealt with separately from its principal marketing strategy. Nowadays, brands recognize purpose as a factor that is integral to their values, business plans, and market acceptance.

This focus on purpose-driven marketing comes in the wake of a seismic shift in consumer attitudes and a perceived decline in social role models generally. The Edelman 2022 Trust Barometer shows that, on both competence and ethics, business now leads government by a significant margin. In the absence of political leadership, consumers want companies to take the lead on societal issues. Over half of those surveyed (52%) said that companies are not doing enough to address climate change, while 49% felt the same about economic inequality, for instance. A confluence of factors has brought about this shift in attitudes and greater scrutiny of corporate practices via the internet and social media, which means that consumers have a granular knowledge of the way companies operate their brands, good and bad.

There are strong corporate and individual gains to be had by responding to these figures. More than half of consumers will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs, according to the Edelman research, while six in 10 employees will choose employers based on shared beliefs and values. With the climate emergency rarely out of the news, and mental and physical health issues gaining greater prominence as a result of the pandemic, there is more pressure than ever on brands to stand for something aspirational and take concrete actions to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

A need to lead from the top

In this changing landscape, it’s small wonder that there has been a glut of companies willing to demonstrate their alignment with evolving consumer sentiment. However, purpose shouldn’t be manufactured opportunistically; purpose-driven marketing that is not built on sincere commitment is doomed to fail. That commitment must be driven by the CEO and the C-suite. If these leaders decline to link the company’s higher purpose to strategic marketing campaigns, they will lack the impetus to succeed. Purpose-driven marketing campaigns don’t operate by the same rules as traditional marketing, where ROI is both easily measured and timely. Many seek to drive behavioral changes that will require a longer time frame than other proven brand activation, and so require the top management team to understand what the brand stands for, and why marketing based on societal rather than commercial impact is worth the investment.

If the C-suite are on board, the brand stands a far greater chance of passing the authenticity test. Unilever puts it simply and clearly: “Brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive.” If a company’s purpose is authentic, it will be evident in all its activities, rather than just a one-off campaign or tokenistic association with a popular cause.  

Building a better world

Companies that have successfully centered their businesses around purpose can draw a straight line from corporate strategy to marketing campaigns. Take Mars Petcare, a global leader in the pet food industry. The company’s defined purpose is to create “A Better World For Pets”. Focusing on this message has driven the company to expand its playing field from pet food to pet health, and ultimately to overall pet care through the acquisition of veterinary hospitals and investments in tech startups.

Mars Petcare’s latest campaign for Pedigree, its most popular dog food brand, has the ambition of eradicating pet homelessness by 2030. Having gathered data in nine different markets, it has produced The State of Pet Homelessness Index which identifies why the problem exists and examines viable solutions. On the back of this research, it launched targeted campaigns for different regions. In the UK, the brand donated three million meals to dogs and cats in rescue centers, while simultaneously launching a £1.3m TV campaign featuring the tag line, “Feed the Good. Adopt.” In the US, the brand aims to change consumer perceptions of the negative stereotypes of shelter pets. In 2020, Pedigree created a virtual platform Dogs on Zoom to let potential adopters meet shelter dogs and designed a digital toolkit to help shelters host their own online adoption drives, which generated a 22% increase in adoption interest at featured shelters and association with adoption grew fourfold. In India, where there are an estimated 62m stray dogs, Pedigree launched a #BeIndieProud initiative, sharing real-life stories of people who have adopted stray animals. Pet health camps, thought leadership workshops, and other events were used to raise awareness and start a conversation about stray dogs to overcome the stigma attached to them in the public consciousness. Pedigree’s efforts shows that purpose-driven marketing need not be driven by purely altruistic thinking but can be direct, efficient, and positive: identify a problem that the brand can help with, then decide how best to do so.

Tackling taboos

Successful purpose-driven marketing goes beyond mere communication of a message; it must make an emotional connection with the consumer. This is particularly valuable in a fully penetrated market. In India, Brooke Bond Red Label tea, part of the Hindustan Unilever (HUL) stable, was first launched over a century ago. Unilever has long professed a commitment to building a more equitable and inclusive society, and HUL has moved to make this a pillar of its brand marketing, focusing on communal harmony, gender parity and social inclusion.

In what was widely recognized as a bold move in a conservative country, it created India’s first transgender musical group: the Brooke Bond Red Label 6 Pack Band. Singing about inclusion and acceptance, the band reached over 25m people and picked up the Glass Lion Grand Prix award at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity. It followed this success with the launch of a Six-Pack Band featuring differently abled children, aiming to reduce the stigma surrounding disability and mental health.

Throughout these campaigns, the product and pricing have not changed. What has changed is the conversation around the brand, which is associated with celebrating togetherness (over a cup of tea), giving it a new relevance and resonance in modern India.

The CMO’s challenge

Changing conversations and winning hearts and minds are daunting challenges for today’s CMOs. The impact of these types of campaign, particularly if they target behavioral change rather than immediate ROI, are notoriously hard to measure. They can also be high-risk. If the 6 Pack Band had failed to hit the right note (metaphorically speaking), it could have damaged the brand’s standing with its traditional customer base.

Many companies may be exploring purpose-led marketing for the first time. As resources are finite, the CMO must be an advocate and secure the funding to progress campaigns where the outcomes are initially uncertain. While marketing teams test and learn, the CMO needs to buy them time and space to experiment by managing the CEO’s expectations on results. However, the team must also be intentional to track and gather data (often on non-traditional dimensions) to start building the case and convince all markets, generating a “pull” for the brand activation around purpose. What the CMO must also bear in mind is that they’re marketing the campaign both outwards to consumers and partners, and inwards to the company’s decision makers and employees.  Many brand leaders have been pleasantly surprised by the higher level of engagement and creativity observed among content agencies, retail partners, and employees while working on such initiatives. As purpose-driven marketing gains traction, the role of the CMO is to ensure that it is carried out in a responsible, measurable, and impactful manner while capturing learning to step change the company’s performance.


Ivy Buche

Ivy Buche

Associate Director, Business Transformation Initiative

Ivy Buche is Associate Director of Business Transformation Initiative at IMD. She works with faculty on organization transformation projects for large companies.


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