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The Purpose Challenge: Why Being Meaningful Matters More than Ever

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INFLUENCER: Havas Germany's Jake Bartanus on driving growth with fundamental human values
The Purpose Challenge: Why Being Meaningful Matters More than Ever

We all are looking for meaning – for the purpose of things or even our lives. Rolf Dobelli, the author of The Art Of Good Life (2017), argues that looking for purpose in our lives is worthless, as it only leads to a never-ending cycle of questions with no answers.  

Why is it then, that everywhere we look, individuals, celebrities and brands all stand for something, vigorously promoting the importance of ‘their’ purpose? Where did #jesuischarlie or the rainbow filter came from?

One thing is certain, we live in an über-expressive age. Everyone has multiple social media accounts which each serve a different function. With an average of 6,000 tweets being posted every second, it’s safe to say that people love to share, like and comment. German studies uncovered a strong connection between these online activities and the human brain´s pleasure centre, nucleus accumbens, that produces the feeling of reward related to food, sex, money, social acceptance and even cocaine.

Neurobiology aside, the phenomenon of expressing your stance on important social issues is growing. If social media is our brand, we want to seem like we care. Like these issues concern us and we were actively invested in them. Whether we are or not. But critics say that simply ‘pasting a filter’ does not solve a problem.


Driving growth with fundamental human values

It’s no wonder that companies are jumping on the bandwagon. If they want to resonate with their audience and cut through the competition, brands need to steer the conversations people are passionate about towards themselves.

Jim Stengel, the author of ‘Grow’ claims he knows what makes a business grow beyond the competition. Based on a rigorous analysis of over 50,000 brands around the world, the central principle of Stengel’s framework is the importance of having a brand ideal – a shared goal of improving people’s lives. He continues to define a brand ideal as the businesses’ essential reason for being, the higher order of benefit it brings to the world. 

‘’A brand ideal of improving people´s lives is the only sustainable way to attract, unite, and inspire all the people a business touches, from employees to customers.’’

One of the major findings of Stengel´s study is that the ideals driving growth can be clustered into five fields of fundamental human values that improve people´s lives by: 1. Eliciting Joy, 2. Enabling Connection, 3. Inspiring Exploration, 4. Evoking Pride, and 5. Impacting Society.

I can´t help but draw a connection between a brand ideal and a purpose. In other words, does Stengel really say that in order to truly grow, a company needs a purpose? Yes, he does. 


Purpose is a three-way street

There is an inherent difference, however, in how companies approach purpose.

1. Purpose as a singular campaign driver. 

A company like McDonald´s creating an International Women´s Day advert or Aldi saying #thankyou to essential workers during health crisis.


2. Purpose as a defining brand driver.

Companies like Lush, Fritz Kola, True Fruits, and Patagonia, whose sole existence is defined by their commitment to purpose.


3. Purpose is the brand itself.

NGOs, non-for-profits and charities like Unicef, WWF, WHO, or UN relying on fundraising and buzz-generating PR practices.


Being meaningful at Havas

With populism and political crises being on the rise, buying has become a political act in itself. 77% of consumers prefer to buy from companies that share their values , that´s why at Havas we focus on making sure our clients´ values are comprehensible, well communicated and understood.

Our core strategy model – Meaningful Brand Idea – is a tool which enables us to make a meaningful difference to brands, business and people. it's about going beyond the product, exploring how brands can tangibly improve peoples´ lives and their role in society.

Doing this does not necessarily mean finding a brand´s or campaign's purpose message itself. A meaningful brand idea, although making a difference to consumers lives, does not have to define brand´s essential reason for being as Stengel´s brand ideal suggests and as many clients might expect.


Think twice about empty promises

It is extremely important to be wary of the thin line of purpose and purpose-washing. Brands haphazardly choose what they believe is their purpose and quickly glue together an emotional short film. Does a Dodge Ram Truck commercial really need an audio track of Martin Luther King Jr. speech?  

The problem is that some brands have made authenticity a marketing strategy rather than a business one, explains Marie Agudera, strategy director at Fold7. As a result, they come across artificially. CEO of Unilever Alan Jope also warned about brands running purpose-driven campaigns but failing to take real action, which might result in an overall loss of trust in our industry.

Recently, Shell received backlash for changing their logo to She´ll (She will) at just one of their petrol stations in support of International Women’s Day. Critics pointed out that simply amending a logo for a short period does not accomplish any change, and even minimises the issue of gender inequality. 


A catalyst called Corona

As corny as it sounds, the time is now. In times like these, when toilet paper has become the single biggest equalizing need for all, the importance to reflect on the meaningful difference brands deliver is essential.

The current health crisis is being used as a platform of opportunity for purpose by many marketeers. And that’s only legit as its impact will last for months – and if done correctly, it can really transform the brand in the consumers’ perception.  55% of consumers believe that companies can play a bigger role than governments in shaping a better future.  And it seems like the companies have been paying attention. Louis Vuitton producing facemasks, Vodafone kindly reminding us to stay home, big corporations sending big bucks to the Corona Crisis relief fund.

Every global issue from the past (be it the Suffrage movement or the HIV epidemic) has changed the way the world operates, and the behaviours people adopt. At this early stage it’s not yet safe to say but, hopefully, what we are experiencing now will nudge more companies to develop an approach to delivering meaningful differences and in some cases, just maybe, even a purpose.


Keeping it real

There is no doubt, marketing that participates in larger social, political and cultural debates is a trend that is here to stay. It is a powerful way for businesses to shape their brand and connect with consumers on a deeper level. However, “being genuine” has to be carefully balanced.  Since the conversation is rooted in social media and everything is instantaneous, companies need to be aware that as quickly as they win over people‘s hearts, they can just as quickly be heartbroken. Ever heard of ‘Cancel Culture’? It’s a popular practice of withdrawing support for (or cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.  It acts quickly and has the power to crush your brand within days. Don’t take the risk. Millennials can smell inauthentic practices from miles away  and they will hunt. You. Down. 


Jake Bartanus is brand strategist at Havas Germany

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Havas Germany, Thu, 14 May 2020 08:14:04 GMT