Many marketing pundits argue that companies should make environmental and social “purpose” an integral part of marketing communications. Read on to learn why you should approach purpose marketing cautiously.
Purpose marketing can be defined as the use of messaging in external communications that expresses a company or brand’s core mission and values. It includes messaging that highlights how a company or brand is positively impacting the lives of employees and customers and/or society as a whole. The term also refers to communications that spell out where the company or brand stands on important social issues.
Numerous research studies have purported to prove that consumers and business buyers now place great importance on the social responsibility track record of the companies or brands they do business with. Many of these studies also indicate that potential buyers now expect companies and brands to “take a stand” on important social issues.
As a result, many marketers have become enamored with purpose marketing. Industry media outlets such as Advertising Age, Adweek, Marketing Week, and The Drum have frequently published articles describing the purpose marketing campaigns and other social responsibility efforts of well-known brands such as Dove, Nike, Gillette, and Patagonia.
In reality, however, the case for purpose marketing isn’t nearly as clear-cut as the hype would suggest. Several recent research studies have painted a more nuanced picture of purpose marketing. These studies suggest that marketers should approach purpose marketing cautiously and thoroughly evaluate potential benefits and risks before they launch a significant purpose marketing program.
Here are a few of the highlights from two surveys conducted earlier this year.
The Bentley University-Gallup Survey
The 2023 Bentley-Gallup Business in Society study was based on a survey of 5,458 U.S. adults (ages 18 and older). The sample for the survey was weighted to be demographically representative of the U.S. adult population. The maximum margin of sampling error for results based on the entire survey sample was + or – 1.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level for response percentages around 50%. The survey was conducted May 8-15, 2023.
Less than half of the survey respondents (41%) said that businesses should take a public stance on current events. This was a decline of seven percentage points from the 2022 edition of the survey.
The main driver of this decline was waning support from respondents who identified as Democrats. In the 2022 survey, 75% of Democratic respondents said businesses should take a public stance on social issues. That percentage dropped to 62% in the 2023 survey.
The researchers asked survey participants about 11 categories of issues (e.g. racial issues, gun issues, LGBTQ+ issues, etc.). Of these 11 issue categories, climate change (at 55%) and mental health (at 52%) were the only two that a majority of survey respondents said businesses should take public positions on.
Perhaps not surprisingly, younger respondents, Asian, black, and Hispanic respondents, and respondents identifying as Democrats were more likely to say that businesses should take a public stance on social issues.
The Ipsos Survey
The Ipsos study was a survey of 1,096 U.S. adults (ages 21 and older). The survey was conducted February 8-9, 2023, and the findings were described in a paper titled, What the Future: Purpose.
The findings of this research revealed that consumer attitudes regarding brand purpose are more nuanced than generally believed. For example:
- 85% of the survey respondents said global or national brands should play a role in solving global problems, but 51% said companies should remain neutral on social issues.
- Two-thirds of the respondents agreed that purchasing sustainable products made a difference for the environment, but only 52% said they were willing to pay more for products that are manufactured sustainably.
One of the most striking findings in the study related to the importance of brand purpose in purchase decisions. Ipsos asked survey participants which of 12 factors were most important when they were deciding which brands or products to purchase. The following table shows that the factors relating to brand purpose (shown in red) were near the bottom of the list in terms of importance.
Does Purpose Marketing Work?
Other recent research has suggested that many purpose marketing programs have failed to make a meaningful impression on potential buyers.
In a 2022 online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults by GfK, over half of the respondents could not name (unaided) a single brand that is “taking care of the environment and fighting climate change,” “promoting diversity and inclusion,” or “giving back to the community.”
The authors of the survey report drew this conclusion: “Despite all the billions of dollars spent on purpose-driven campaigns, brands have not achieved top-of-mind awareness for this crucial work. In some cases, purpose marketing has become a kind of ‘green noise’ – a constant hum about virtuous brand behavior in which few messages or actions stand out . . .”
The Bottom Line
These recent studies provide a more balanced view of buyer attitudes regarding the appropriateness and value of purpose marketing. The findings show that while values matter to potential buyers, there is little consensus regarding whether companies and brands should take public stances on social issues.
That’s why marketers should approach purpose marketing with a great deal of caution.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits and risks of purpose marketing, take a look at this “deep dive” article that I published in January of last year.
Top image courtesy of Paul Mison via Flickr (CC).