What Brand Purpose Really Is

System1 LogoCritics of “brand purpose” – the idea that brands need to improve the world or society as well as just make money – tend to dismiss the notion as an ineffective fad. You’ll hear brand purpose called virtue signaling, or people making claims that purposeful branding exists in a Marketing bubble.

The backlash hasn’t stopped Paul Polman and Alain Jope of Unilever, or London’s Financial Times, taking firm stands in public on the need for purpose. Many more have joined them. With every day that passes, brand purpose looks less like a fad and more like a movement.

But the voices in favor of brand purpose have their own difficulties. First, the business argument in favor rests on a handful of popular books and studies, like Jim Stengel’s Grow, which have seen plenty of criticism from other Marketing scientists. And second, ads that highlight brand purpose have become hostages in the ongoing political “culture wars” in the US, UK, and Europe.

Read More: Consumer (Dis)Likes and Brand Loyalty in the Era of Digital Customer Experience

Brands like Nike (with spokesman Colin Kaepernick) and Gillette (with their “toxic masculinity” ad), have seen their campaigns become partisan footballs, with commentators hailing every Share spike or Sales dip as proof they were right about the ad all along. Our research suggests the truth is less dramatic – and for marketers, more useful.

Most work on brand purpose in advertising takes a group of controversial ads and asks how they perform. At System1 we took a different approach. We looked at a group of high performing ads and analyzed them for evidence of purpose – did the ad promote any cause outside the brand itself?

We sourced the ads using our Ad Ratings service, which uses consumer panels to test every ad that airs in major categories in the US and UK. Each ad gets a 1- to 5- Star Rating based on emotional response, predicting its likelihood of generating long-term growth for a brand, assuming the brand invests in it. For our look at the brand purpose, we examined only the 5-Star ads from the last 18 months – a rating achieved by less than 1% of ads.

Read More: Can Direct-to-Consumer Brands Successfully Shift from Online to Offline Retail?

These ads are the most effective in our tests. What did they tell us about purpose?

Around 1 in 4 of the highest performing ads had some purpose beyond the brand. However these were not all highly liberal (or conservative) causes – instead, the ads which created the most effective response pushed inclusive, not divisive, causes. The top performer of any purpose ad, for instance, was a spot for Verizon highlighting its work helping military veterans. Sick children, abandoned dogs, poor communities, and girls learning STEM subjects were other effective causes.

In other words, effective brand purpose now looks very much like effective cause-related Marketing did 10 or 20 years ago. People like seeing ads that prove brands are doing good. But they like them most when it’s for a cause anyone can get behind.

Read More: Reputation in the Online World: How Brands Can Cut Through the Endless Choices of the Customer Journey