The assured safety of ‘world peace’ as a brand purpose4 min read . Updated: 20 Oct 2020, 10:27 PM IST
Going with an uncontroversial dream may well be better than adopting a lofty ideal only to abandon it
You know the joke about every Miss World aspirant’s common answer when asked what her life’s purpose is. “World Peace!" It’s the safest answer. No one can argue with it, and it sounds like a big deal. It won’t get you into trouble. My advice to most brands that want to declare their “brand purpose" is to go for world peace, or some such similar ideal, for precisely the same reason. But if they want to go for a purpose that could be controversial among their stakeholders, then they should do it with the clarity that they may have to go all the way to defend it, and that it may result in a loss of business and even a decline in brand value at times. They also need to consider that if they can’t afford that and succumb to an alternative view, then not only would it weaken their brand, it could also impact the cause they were espousing.
Titan’s recent Tanishq commercial that was aired and then withdrawn after mass criticism from those who opposed its purpose (or communication of it) is an example of what not to do. The case serves as a good basis for brand owners to rethink why they want a brand purpose at all.
The idea of a brand having a purpose has become fashionable among marketers in the past 20-30 odd years. In the latter decades of the 20th century, brands were first focused on the “unique selling proposition" (USP) approach of finding a special feature or benefit to advertise. We then moved on to the era of “positioning", in which the aim was to occupy a distinctive place in the customer’s mind. However, as things started getting even more competitive, marketers struggled to find ways to sell pretty much the same “me-too" products in distinctive ways.
Three changes then happened—two related to consumers directly and one to the market as a whole. First, incomes rose significantly, and consumers whose basic needs were largely satiated increasingly wanted to“self-actualize" themselves. Some argue that the focus on “green" or sustainable products came from that change. Second, millennials had so much access to information, and exchanged so much of it among themselves, that issues of the “larger good" and “equality" started gaining prominence. As for the market, with increased prosperity and globalization, product category sizes began to grow so large that a brand could perform very well serving just a small segment that believed passionately in an idea that the rest of the market did not.
Enter the era of “brand purpose". Brand marketers started spending a significant amount of resources figuring out “what my brand should stand for" and “what its purpose should be" and then conveying this consistently to an audience in the hope of building greater brand affinity and thereby higher sales or a market premium.
The first obvious point was: “Well, the brand purpose can’t be to make money, or we can’t say so in any case because it would sound too commercial and offensive. They would probably think we will reduce quality to shave off costs or overprice it without offering extra value."
The second route, which was more viable, was the world-peace route. Choose something non-controversial that may not sound interesting but won’t get you into trouble. The problem with that is also obvious: “It isn’t very distinctive and hence what’s the point talking about it?" It will get you neither more market-share nor a price premium.
The third route was for the brave. Choose something that is perhaps the social zeitgeist, and by linking your brand with it, you could turn it distinctive and trendy. One of the best examples of such thinking was done for Unilever’s brand, Dove. By focusing on the idea that “real beauty" is not what appears on the surface, it took advantage of precisely that trend in attitudes. Witness the number of big movie stars in the West today who are neither “perfectly shaped" nor chisel-featured, as they used to be once upon a time.
Brands that have taken the third approach have often done very well. Jim Stengel, former chief marketing officer of Procter & Gamble, showed that brands that “have purposes" tend to generate value faster for investors.
The problem with this approach is that it takes “brand purpose" into an area where it is bound to be buffeted by commercial considerations. So, if the zeitgeist changes or if the way the brand’s purpose is pursued antagonizes too many people, as the recent Tanishq ad did, it is surrendered too easily and the brand is affected immeasurably.
The trouble with antagonism or a surrender is not just that the brand is affected, but that it affects its purpose as well, especially if the brand is “big" or well-reputed. The antagonists get more cocksure, aware that having pushed a powerful brand back, they can press even harder against less powerful supporters of that cause.
Brand owners need to think whether it makes good sense to choose such a brand purpose, no matter how lucrative it is in terms of “winning" with a well-paying target group. They have to realize that giving up on it when push comes to shove can have repercussions not just for the brand, but for the very purpose itself.
To really succeed with a distinctive brand purpose, brand owners have to believe in the value of that cause at least as much, if not more, than the value of their brand. For most brand owners, no purpose is worth that much, in which case going for something universal and “vanilla", like world peace, is perhaps the best option—no different from a Miss World aspirant.