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Even a pandemic couldn't make the public care more about brand purpose

The Drum 30 Jun 2020 03:10
Even a pandemic couldn't make the public care more about brand purpose

Ian Murray, co-founder of research and strategy collective House51, designed and co-authored incisive research pieces ‘Gut Instinct’, ‘Empathy Delusion’ and now the ‘The Aspiration Window’ with Reach. From his data, he believes that ‘social virtue marketing’ is less about responding to demand in the marketplace and more about marketers' own need to signal their identity and values.

There’s an old saying about never wasting a good crisis. As recent events have shown, if you are out to change the world, unexpected events that disrupt people’s habits and norms provide ideal ‘moments of change’. So, it’s unsurprising that many people in our industry believe that Covid-19 has ‘changed everything’.

The crisis has certainly amplified the brand purpose narrative. For many, it’s self-evident that ‘doing good’ will be a source of competitive advantage for brands as the crisis unfolds, and in the post-Covid world that follows.

Our data made difficult reading for brand purpose fans. The mainstream put little faith in social virtue messaging. And marketers didn’t believe in it either.

However, the real blow for brand purpose advocates came in the response of advertisers and marketers to the same question. 80% of people working in ad land don’t consider these social virtue factors when making a buying decision.

The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ was that it was good, old-fashioned attributes like value for money, customer service, quality, and reliability matter most to the mainstream and to people working in our industry.

And… nothing changed. It’s still about value, quality and reliability and there has been no uptick in belief in social virtue marketing.

Furthermore, a reliance on explicit messaging also seems at odds with basic principles of psychology and behavioural science that marketers have so enthusiastically adopted in recent years. There is a cognitive dissonance (where people experience mental discomfort due to their conflicting beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours). We argue that this explains the disconnect between the orthodoxy around brand purpose and what people believe really motivates buying. Brand purpose is simply something that helps advertisers and marketers feel better about themselves and what they do. It’s about the psychological wellbeing of marketers, not what motivates mainstream purchase decisions.

And yet, brand purpose may have something going for it. Brand purpose communicates quality and reliability

This taps into evolutionary psychology and the concept of costly signalling. Think of the peacock’s tail: it’s extravagant display shows it has resources to spare and signals quality and fitness to prospective mates.

Note how this aligns with the top priorities in mainstream buying decisions we find in ‘The Aspiration Window’. But even if social virtue marketing can signal reliability and quality, in our polarised culture it still looks like an inefficient and risky strategy. The empathy and aspiration gap that persists between marketers and the mainstream means it’s too easy for brands to end up on the wrong side of the conversation.

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Ian MurrayMark RitsonUKJonathan StarLBC fame
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