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Picture: 123RF/rawpixel
Picture: 123RF/rawpixel

In the UK there has been some heated debate around brand purpose after effectiveness expert Peter Field argued that blanket criticisms of brand purpose advertising are unjustified. 

Last week fund manager Terry Smith, the founder of London-based investment company Fundsmith, reignited the purpose debate when he criticised Unilever, saying the company had “lost the plot” as it prioritised the sustainable ethos of brands rather than focusing on its financial returns. 

Brand consultant and former marketing professor Mark Ritson reflected on the furore in a recent Marketing Week column, writing that the brand purpose debate should not be oversimplified. He agrees that while brand purpose can be a successful and effective approach, it can also “be an overbaked, underthought exercise with zero impact on a brand’s commercial fortunes and massive opportunity costs to boot”.

Ritson’s argument is that some brands are just not suited to a purpose-led approach, and “there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that and executing accordingly”.

And just because a business chooses not to position itself on purpose doesn’t make it an “evil” organisation.

“The fact that purpose is not a marketing prerequisite means that it is therefore a choice,” writes Ritson. “A strategic choice. Because, as anyone with any experience of strategy can tell you, that is all strategy ultimately is: a series of selfish choices that entail deciding what your brand will and won’t do.”

He argues that the idea of purpose as a strategic choice makes perfect sense – and it nullifies both extremes of the debate that surrounds brand purpose.

Ritson advises marketers to review their market, their competitors, their category and the role their brands plays in that market, and only then decide if purpose will allow for distinctiveness and differentiation.

Marketers should be able to explain why they have not opted for brand purpose “without denigrating the whole pursuit of purpose as always flawed”, he writes.

Unilever has previously said its brands with purpose grow faster than those without purpose and has committed that all its brands will have purpose. Ritson questions this commitment, writing: “Surely one of the greatest branding companies of our lifetime is not this naïve or dogmatic? Surely, it has not forgotten the greatest generic rule of brand management: that there are no generic rules and that each brand, if it truly is a brand, should play the game differently.”

Ritson adds that while purpose does – and should – play a role for some brands in the Unilever portfolio, like Dove, he agrees with Smith that purpose is not appropriate for a brand like Hellman’s mayonnaise. Brands should follow a purpose because they believe in that purpose – even if it costs them something – rather than the financial rewards that accrue as a result. “Why do marketers make the naïve assumption that you can have your purpose cake and be paid for eating it too?” he writes.

The big take-out:

While brand purpose can be an effective approach for some brands, others may not be suited to it.


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