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Purpose hijack

09 Mar 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Purpose hijack

Genuine efforts to deliver brand purpose are being sullied by charlatans, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: The Independent vs. The Telegraph, and Advertising Week's climate debate

Oh no. I fear the debate about purpose and brands has spun out of control, hijacked by those jumping on the bandwagon. The evidence: a full-page advert in the FT last week headlined #PURPOSE.

While very little I see or hear about purpose makes me reconsider my inner sceptic (actually, not that inner), the ad almost made me feel sorry for those who, like P&G and Unilever, are genuine in their claims. Their efforts are sullied by the charlatans.

The client is BAT, aka British American Tobacco, which is using this ad to hide its actions behind a smokescreen of honeyed and hollow words centred around purpose.

“We believe in purpose,” it says. “We aim to reduce the health impact of our business by offering consumers greater choice in new product categories.” Apologies for the poor picture.

Hmm. Not a mention of the ‘c’ or ’t’ word here and unless you knew what BAT produced you’d maybe think it was in fossil fuels, processed foods or packaging.

Outrageous. Mind you, the choice of media is itself a clue to BAT’s true motivations. If it had a shred of sincerity, it would at least run this ad in mainstream media consumed by its target market, not one read by investors where the real aim is to prop up its share price.

Indie up, Telegraph down

It is more or less four years since The Independent became the first national newsbrand to announce it was dropping print. If I’d been offered a bet then on its survival, let alone ability to turn years of red ink into a profit, I would have said no.

But what do I know? Last week The Indie announced its third consecutive year of profit, £2.3m on a turnover of £27m with ad revenues up 10%.

Not bad, especially as — which it couldn’t resist pointing out — it is now more profitable than The Daily Telegraph. Now we know The Telegraph has its woes, which go beyond the familial civil war now consuming its owners the Barclays.

Seeing both as print sales have slumped (down 12% to 317,000 in its most recent — and last! — ABC figures) and the paper is up for sale, perhaps now is the time for it to consider copying The Independent. It does after all, and unlike The Independent, start from a reasonably strong digital position, with 218,700 digital subs. And then why not The Guardian too? Both must be in or close to the position where print makes a loss.

While I’m at it, may I offer some words of thanks to The Indie. Time was its tablet and web pages were stuffed to overflowing with ads, making the reader experience a test of navigational skills and patience. Now, it appears to have taken on board the lesson that less is more. Reading its story on my tablet shows the value of such self-imposed restraint with just an ad for Kew Gardens and one, somewhat bizarrely, for ear-wax removal. I paid attention to both, even if the latter was not for me.

Advertising Week climate debate

Next week I’ll be back in the thick of the climate debate, chairing an IPA session on Monday at Advertising Week London (coronavirus permitting, of course).

It’s at 10.10am for anyone who wants to attend, and details are here.

One of the big questions is this: is the industry doing enough, or too much, to address the climate crisis?

Looking at IPA Touchpoints data for 2019, it is clear consumers say climate change is an issue, with 60% of women and 55% of men agreeing they were concerned about it. I had expected the figures to be higher though.

But when you get down to specifics, there’s some nuance. Packaging and plastic bother consumers more than climate change generally — yes, Gillette razors, guilty as charged — and car pollution or excess meat consumption by significant margins.

And then of course if you were to ask the question ‘what do these concerns have to do with advertising?’ the answer, at least from a consumer point of view, is nothing much.

That, however, is certainly not how many in the ad industry see it, where there is a hard core that believes that advertising, if not directly responsible for the current state of affairs, can play a key role in changing it.

By way of antidote, here’s a blog by a creative, Olly Cooper. In an act of self-quarantining, he took himself out of the industry echo chamber for a time to experience (or enjoy) the real world.

“I saw people [in the industry] waxing lyrical about the ‘change’ advertising was making in the world. Tweets about how agencies are revolutionising the way consumers engage with brands. But this didn’t reflect the real world I’d been living in. Advertising was not changing the world. It was not revolutionising the way everyday people saw brands. It was just existing.”

All of which I sympathise with. Equally, however, you could argue that even if consumers don’t care about advertising’s role in climate change, that is no reason for the industry to take the same attitude. Sometimes, you have to lead.

Let’s see where we end up on this.

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07 Apr 2020 

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