Samir Patel: does purpose-driven advertising do good causes more harm than good?

This year at Cannes we saw the expected deluge of purpose-focused winners, from the massive Dream Crazy ad from Nike to the less well-known Carling’s Address the Future initiative. Each year, it seems that more Lions are awarded to campaigns with a purpose — marketing that puts a cause front and centre.

Cause-related marketing isn’t a new concept, but over the last few years it’s been embraced by brands with a new vigour. On the face of it, this seems like a positive thing — but could some of these brands actually be doing more harm than good?

In fact, if consumers’ social media feeds and TV screens are flooded with cause-related marketing from big consumer brands, could this detract from the impact that charities are trying to make with their much smaller budgets?

I’ve worked across both the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, and heard frustrations voiced from senior charity marketers that they’re now competing with major global brands for attention. It’s particularly relevant as charities are under intense scrutiny as to when and where they spend their marketing budgets. Even if they could do a big campaign like a consumer brand can, they would be criticised for putting money into it.

For example, Amnesty International named Colin Kaepernick as its Ambassador of Conscience (its most prestigious human rights award, previously given to Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai) three months before Nike’s iconic campaign launched. But people were only associating one of these organisations with the NFL star.

While this is frustrating for charities, it doesn’t have to be. If brands are willing to use their power and ample media budgets for good, they should: in a way they’re informally taking on the top of the funnel for the charities that cannot afford to do so.

But big brands shouldn’t do it in ignorance of what’s happening on the front lines of the cause they’ve decided to adopt as their own.

At the moment too many cause-related campaigns from consumer brands stop dead after the awareness stage, as that tends to be the point: attention. And this is usually irrelevant to purpose outcomes.

So after brands take a stand, what comes next? If you consider a consumer’s journey through a cause, after raising awareness they need to be presented with an opportunity to learn more, to do more, and to take real action — and when it comes to purpose, this isn’t just about purchasing a product.

The key here is the cause itself. When the cause leads, brands and charities alike must be willing to do what it takes to further it. Charities, over time, have begun to see other charities as collaborators and not just competitors, when it comes to a shared agenda. That’s because the cause overrides everything.

For the Nikes of this world, they have a decision to make: is positive attention enough? Consumers today are savvy, they see through marketing gimmicks and are demanding responsibility, consciousness and sustainability from the organisations they deal with.

This is where collaborations and partnerships can come into play. If people are responding to a cause, could a brand hold an event around it that involves local partners, or direct people to organisations in their community, or highlight how to get involved even further by supporting a related charity? Or tell even more stories about people making a difference from all walks of life, and not stop at one person on one billboard? What can they do in their retail presence, if they have one, or how do they help their employees get involved with a cause in a meaningful way?

I was inspired to see Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad. And I hope more brands lead with values and put themselves out there. But we can’t be naive about this. Apple’s famous Think Different ad from decades ago saluted “The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers… Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Whilst some of the big purpose-driven campaigns of late may be trying to live up to this, they are only doing what businesses have always done: driving attention.

In a society where we applaud the big and the bold, the Times Square billboards, let’s not forget the Patagonias of the world, the true corporate radicals who are pushing for real impact in everything they do. They may not shout the loudest, but they donate sales to environmental causes like Friends of the Earth, and provide ways for people to take action locally through their Action Works platform. They generate attention and then help people get involved more deeply, even if that means pointing them elsewhere.

It’s time for brands to follow their model and not just take a stand, but push for real progress.

Samir Patel is chief innovation strategist of Blue State Digital.

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