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05.04.2022 By George Coleman, Joint CEO, Current Global

An Inflection Point for Purpose-Led Communications.

Photograph of a close-up of a jar of unbranded mayonnaise with someone dipping a small spoon into it.

2022 will be an inflection point for purpose-led communications.

Whether it’s marketing effectiveness or business fundamentals, questions are increasingly being asked about how successful purpose-led strategies really are. Influential investment analyst Terry Smith recently bemoaned Unilever’s negative annual return, for example, saying the firm’s leadership is too obsessed with public virtue signalling: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).”

In his January column for Marketing Week, Professor Mark Ritson neatly summed up the furore Peter Field’s IPA talk caused in 2021: “Field’s analysis demonstrated, quite clearly, that the average purpose campaign was significantly less likely to generate very strong, long-term business effects when compared with “traditional” non-purpose campaigns. That should have been the main headline of the work. But marketing is far too politically correct and too many senior marketing reputations have been built from the bricks of brand purpose for that more accurate headline to emerge.”

What about the average person on the street? Well, cynicism is on the rise. A survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by Vice Media Group in November 2021 found that only 43% truly believe brands are living their stated purpose (compared to 83% of marketers….).

That downbeat assessment might surprise some, given the Great Resignation is symptomatic of an impulse that’s affecting the population-at-large: a desire to seek meaning and purpose as an antidote to the privations of the past couple of years. But greater introspection and re-evaluation has perhaps made us more attuned to what’s authentic or not. We might not believe anymore that mayonnaise can change the world, but we probably still care that it’s made in an environmentally-friendly way and that factory workers are properly looked after.

Critically, moving forward, we must be clear-eyed about purpose: we need a little less conversation and a little more action from brands. Talk is no longer enough. Leaders need to step up, make fewer promises and deliver more progress, especially on issues like climate change and sustainability. And we shouldn’t be shy about noting that selling things enables companies to pay taxes which fund essential public services. Commercial interests and those of society have many positive points of intersection: Good business can be good, and we should avoid the gravitational trap of the ‘virtue’ end of the purpose spectrum.

The bottom line? Leaders must still inspire, but they also need to have a plan of action, demonstrate empathy and cultural intelligence about the state of the world, and be transparent on progress. Perfection isn’t required, but progress is.

If we can successfully re-calibrate purpose in 2022 to be less virtue-signalling and more about communicating action and impact, then we’ll all be able slap on the mayo happy in the knowledge that every bite of that chicken salad sandwich is as good for the planet as it is for our tastebuds.

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