The Beautiful Smoke and Mirrors of Brand Purpose

TL;DR: there's nothing wrong with marketing and storytelling. But when it comes to joining that with CSR and putting out messaging of what your brand cares about, it needs to be real, rather than just a good story.

There's been a lot made over the past few years of brand purpose and social issue engagement as a part of what some have called "brand storytelling". Having CSR at the heart of brand marketing.

It's that sentence that's everything that's wrong with where marketers and ad people have gone over the past few years.

A Quest for Sales, A Flirtation with Purpose

Here's a statement that shouldn't be controversial - if a brand is going to engage with having a socially responsible message, then that message should be a reflection of the brand's activities. Otherwise, it's using politics and emotionally charged subjects to sell product, not to do anything else.

These brands do not care about you or the issues you're passionate about; they care about you buying what they make.

Let's take a look at a short list of recent and not so recent offenders in the realms of tasteless advertising, and then look at what could be done to fix this.

The Rogue's Gallery


Police brutality would go away if only the protesters gave them Pepsi


You're more beautiful than you think, as long as you're good looking, well spoken and (probably) white


Beer and a chat solves all the "isms" and makes awful people nice


Girls can do sports too!

We Don't Believe You

I don't, for a minute, believe that any of these companies are actually going to follow up on what their marketing material is, to try and actually do anything based around what they're saying here.

Compare the Always #likeagirl campaign, to Sport England's This Girl Can. One of these was designed to go down well on YouTube and Twitter, whilst the other was designed to make a difference.

The result? #likeagirl cleaned up in awards season, delivered tens of millions of views on YouTube and lots of celebrity endorsements. This Girl Can got women who had stopped exercising back into sport.

This is the fundamental difference between the two modes of thinking. One is aiming to actually do good. The other is aimed at appealing to people without backing up the statement. Where is Heineken in the fight against the rise of political extremism? What are they doing to elevate discourse? What's Pepsi doing to improve race relations in the US?

If the start end end of your commitment to positive change is your ad placements, you'll pardon us if we don't believe you.

Changing Perceptions

I think the trend for this came out of the desire of brand storytelling a few years ago. If you tell a good story about your brand, that's got to be a good thing, right?

Well, yes. As long as it's true. What if McDonald's instead had made an ad telling you about 10 things they were doing with their profits to make a positive impact on society? I mean, it's not like they don't actually do some good things.

We use low energy LED light bulbs, energy saving equipment and waterless urinals, and recycle used cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel more than half of our delivery trucks. We also recycle the cardboard boxes used in more than 89% of our restaurants, and more than 85% of our packaging is made from renewable resources. We are the Community Partner Community Partner of the four nations' Football Associations. This means we work with local football clubs, schools, youth teams and junior leagues around the UK. Our programme gives people the chance to volunteer and qualify as a football coach so they can give free, high-quality coaching to young people across the country. We also organise daily litter patrols and work with environmental charities Keep Britain Tidy, Keep Wales Tidy, Keep Scotland Beautiful and Tidy Northern Ireland. Most of our charity work is focused on supporting Ronald McDonald House Charities, an independent charity which McDonald's has supported for over 20 years. Ronald McDonald House Charities provides a 'home away from home' for families with children undergoing treatment in hospital. The Charity relies on voluntary donations, and you can find collection boxes in every single one of our restaurants. We also invest over £360 million a year in the UK agricultural industry. The majority of our ingredients come from Britain and Ireland, with more than 17,500 British and Irish farmers providing us with ingredients such as beef, Freedom Food pork, free-range eggs, organic milk and potatoes.

From What is McDonald's corporate social responsibility policy?

What if they made ads about those things? There's a huge amount that could be done for creating both ads and both on & offline marketing materials around those things. And it's actually real.

Brand purpose has to be more than just a marketing message to sell your company. It needs to be something that your company does. It should be real.

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