Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Duty Matters

Published in Jul-Aug 2023

Julian Saunders discusses why brands need to focus on their duty to their customers, rather than touting their purpose.

One of the things I loved when I was an account planner* was getting out of the office to meet people face-to-face. I enjoyed going into peoples’ homes, rooting around in their cupboards, seeing what they pin to their walls and where they shop. I liked to do ‘assisted shopping’ – there is no better way to understand the trade-off parents have to make on a limited budget than going shopping with them and chatting about their choices.

Data too is a rich source of insight for planners, and there is much more of it available now, and it is also more accessible. At Google Trends you can conduct your own ‘sentiment analysis’ for free. The growing popularity of search terms such as ‘cost of living crisis’ and ‘energy costs’ indicates what people are worried about. Survival, getting by, affording the children’s clothes as well as food and energy bills.

As a former Googler, I love data too, but it has a big weakness. It cannot tell you how people really feel. If you just rely on what people type (or bark) into their smartphones, you will miss a gamut of human emotions and feelings that you can only intuit by seeing faces and places. What people do not say is as important as what they do – and it is not captured by search analysis.

My personal view is that ad agencies lost confidence in the face of powerful big data platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Qualitative research, once a vital tool in developing great creative became unfashionable and click-through rates (data) became the all-important measure. So, it’s good to see some agencies recovering their mojo. I recently attended an excellent debrief by Saatchi and Saatchi (hosted by the UK APG), with the clickbaity title of ‘What the **** is going on?’(I have taken out the f word as I know Aurora is a family publication).

The debrief covered how people really felt about the cost of living crisis based on in-depth ‘ethnographic’ research. They summed up the big themes thus: we are in a living nightmare; no one is in control; we are going backwards; we live in a dog-eat-dog country; society is increasingly divided; pride is slipping away; the system is rigged against us and there have been too many false hopes.

Granted, this is an in-depth UK study, but I suspect that similar themes will be uncovered in many countries. Is this how many Pakistanis feel? It may be interesting to replicate Saatchi and Saatchi’s methodology.

A failure to understand how people really feel can be dangerous for brands. It can lead to tone-deaf, clotheared communication. It lies behind the backlash against woke advertising, or what I call ‘Higher Purpose Branding’ (see How Lofty is your Brand, Aurora May-June 2015; news/1140893). For over a decade brands have championed a range of causes – a trend that kicked off with Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty and which became a norm.

Brands championed trans rights, women’s rights, gay rights, prevention of violence against women, the disabled, diversity, the environment (increasingly) and so much more.

At their best, these well-intentioned campaigns deliver practical action and more social justice. My favourite is Ariel’s 2016 campaign in India (Dads #ShareTheLoad) to release busy mums from the drudgery of having to do all of the laundry themselves – and getting their men to do more. The campaign was practical – Ariel packs carried ‘his and hers’ calendars and relevant, coming from a product that cleans clothes. I have no doubt that the teams behind these higher-purpose campaigns believe sincerely they are doing the right thing. Most of us like to think we are good and can do good in the world.

But at its worst, Higher Purpose Branding can be perceived as narcissism; ‘Love my brand, love my values’ seemed to be the effective idea behind it. The brand tells people what it cares about and by implication what they should care about too. You will have all experienced this. It’s like being at a party where you get stuck with someone who can only talk about himself and how he does loads of charity work. The danger is that people who are feeling really pissed off and desperate can be very intolerant of self-regarding narcissists (take a bow, Boris Johnson).

Try Googling “backlash against woke advertising” to see what I mean. In the US, Bud Lite backed American Pride and was quickly seen to have indulged in virtual signalling – as in wishing to be admired as modern and progressive. Brand teams can be misled by the thumbs-up emojis they win from progressive activists in social media. They can also get caught in the crosshairs of culture wars. Bud Lite is a blue-collar mass-market brand, and it seems to have lost sight of that most basic of marketing principles – always find out what your customers think and feel.

It’s not difficult to avoid Bud Lite’s mistake. Spend less time talking to well-meaning folk who agree with you. Or just ask your account planner to do some qual’ among your customers. To be clear, I am not saying you should pander to people’s least noble instincts. I am saying that nobody likes to be talked down to by comfortably off-university-educated types who are just a little too pleased with themselves (in my experience, the most generous and community-minded people tend to have the least wealth).

There is a shift in consumer sentiment that brands ignore at their peril. In the future, it will be wiser to think about your brand’s duties rather than its higher purpose. A duty is something you perform for others. It is less egotistical, more outward-looking, and more likely to win customer approval because it will be rooted in what they care about. Duty is an old-fashioned word and marketers hate being labelled as that. At Cannes this year, everyone was (predictably) super excited about this year’s hot issue – AI – but the best marketers never lose sight of the fundamentals. Duty was the watchword of the late Queen Elizabeth II and she proved to be a highly successful reputation manager for the House of Windsor. She navigated turbulent, unpredictable, fast-changing times and technologies by cleaving to this immutable value.

What are your brand’s duties? They will vary by category and product, but there are common themes. And it is my duty as an account planner to have a stab at answering this question for Aurora readers – in the next issue. Watch this space.

*Account Planners often call themselves strategists nowadays which can cause them to lose sight of what their job really is.

Julian Saunders has led account planning departments in agencies big and small, been CEO of a WPP creative agency, worked in a Google innovation team and on behaviour change campaigns for the UK government.