Editor’s Letter: The Complicated Issue of Brand Purpose in a Shifting Marketing Landscape

Latest Digital Transformation Playbook takes up the challenging topic

Headshot of James Cooper

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

I’ve always loved this quote from John F. Kennedy about drive. It transcends the tactic of hard work and the emotion of bravery to the higher strategic plane of purpose and direction—knowing who you are and where you want to go.

In this our sixth Digital Transformation Playbook in partnership with Accenture Interactive, we are tackling the hefty theme of brand purpose in a constantly shifting and fragmented media and marketing landscape.

There has been no shortage of effort in addressing this issue and increasingly—and refreshingly so for the reporters and editors at Adweek—bravery in the face of change is now more commonly seen among the bullshit than two years ago.

Sill brand purpose and direction are massively complex concepts for marketers to grasp, much less evangelize and deploy as strategy and process.

In his column, Brian Whipple, global CEO of Accenture Interactive, suggests that our focus on innovation should pivot away from iteration for iteration’s sake—I agree, vacuum-enabled shoes are a bit much—and use technology to refine brand purpose along the customer journey rather than gadgetize it.

The regular Playbook infographic by Adweek story desk editor Erik Wander has become a great visualized trove of meaningful transformation insights, and this edition focused on brand purpose, doesn’t disappoint. First consider the fact that 75 percent of global consumers expect brands to contribute to their well-being and quality of life. Then consider that stat with a millennial or Gen Z filter. According to a 2017 Cone Communications CSR study, 89 percent of Gen Z consumers would buy from a company supporting social and environmental issues over one that doesn’t. When these younger consumers enter the economy in full, purpose-driven CSR won’t just be good business sense, it will be a survival imperative.

Cue Conner Blakley, the 18-year-old founder of marketing firm YouthLogic, which advises clients like Mark Cuban, Johnson & Johnson and the NHL on how best to reach young consumers. In a Q&A with Adweek technology editor Josh Sternberg, Blakley offers a blunt assessment of which companies get it and which ones don’t. I won’t ruin the reveal here.

One of the trickier elements of brand purpose is that in order to stand firmly for something, you are more than likely taking a stance against something else. Trickier still is doing so in this highly polarized political and socially activated climate. Regular contributor Dan Tynan examines this marketing dynamic in his feature.

“Traditional brands can no longer sit on their hands and allow well-scripted corporate statements to shape who they are,” Tynan quotes Tripp Donnelly, CEO of digital reputation management firm REQ. “They have to be dynamic and understand they’re talking to multiple generations of people.”

Finally, in this issue’s Winners’ Playbook, Tynan offers up four suggestions for marketers to hew to as they evolve their purpose profile. Under the “Be Good—It’s Good for Business” headline, I particularly liked Tynan’s paraphrase of Jamie Gutfreund, global CMO of digital agency Wunderman, who said brands can no longer count on customers remaining loyal. Instead, brands need to be loyal to their customers.

Or in other words—back to JFK with sincerest apologies—ask not what your consumers can do for you, but what you can do for your customers.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jcoopernyc james.cooper@adweek.com James Cooper is editorial director of Adweek.