Published in Mar-Apr 2022
The mot de jour in the ad world today is ‘purpose’ or campaigns with ‘a strong social message’. And that is a good thing. As advertisers, we have the power to change society and make things better in a way that is more effective than any talk show or protest march could. It is also a great way to win awards.
There are some brilliant examples in the West of purpose-driven campaigns that did just that – and they did more than win awards. These campaigns did what advertising is meant to do – increase brand love and drive sales. They are still quoted, debated upon and talked about because they were squarely based on the brand’s equity. And the purpose at the heart of each campaign was firmly aligned with the brand’s values.
Take Gillette’s 2017 launch for their new assisted shaving razor. It featured a real-life father-son duo, with the son talking about what his father means to him, all the while lovingly assisting him with daily chores like bathing and shaving. The film is touching and was a nod to the issues arising from an increasingly ageing population – many of whom live on their own. The ad won six Cannes Lions. And deservedly so. The social cause was universally relatable. It did not preach the ‘look after your parents’ mantra but conveyed it beautifully within the real-life story. More importantly, the purpose was mirrored in the product – it was the launch of the first-ever razor designed for assisted shaving.
Two years later, Gillette followed this up with a campaign featuring a father teaching his transgender son how to shave. While it brought up the topic of gender identity, it was also clearly an advertising campaign with the product in use, albeit unobtrusively. And was it ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ as the brand proclaimed? Hell, yes. Again, by simply aligning this point of view with LGBTQ awareness, the brand quietly stated their own point of view and their stance on the issue without cringing preachiness.
Gillette ran into trouble when they launched the campaign for their new positioning ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ in the midst of the #MeToo movement. It tackled toxic masculinity, from bullying to mansplaining to sexual harassment, while challenging the ‘Boys will be boys’ myth, with a message to: “Say the right thing, to act the right way… because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” The campaign attracted vitriol from men’s groups (yes they exist) online. The brand did not back down. In fact, they pledged a million dollars a year for the next three years, partnering with organisations that shared the aim of supporting and helping boys and men to be the best versions of themselves.
Nike is another brand that tackles purpose very well and like Gillette, it persists in pursuing the right cause even if it is polarising. The brand has long championed the athlete in the ordinary human, upholding the sporting spirit and the will to go against all odds. In doing so, they have championed diversity, women in sports and the differently-abled, and usually to a positive response. Their purpose – ‘bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world’ – is evident in every communication they put forward.
However, when the brand backed ‘Black Lives Matter’ with Colin Kaepernick, the response was mixed. Some people hailed it for its audacity, many others did not. There were protests and boycott threats, with many a Nike sneaker going up in flames. The brand persisted because it was a cause they believed in, and it was aligned with their values. Brand loyalists came to the defence – and even arch-rival Adidas tweeted in support. The result was soaring sales. However, the effects went beyond sales and awards. Nike admitted that their own organisation lacked diversity and took measures to correct this, holding themselves accountable. They poured $40 million into projects and initiatives to help black communities. As a brand, Nike is stronger than ever.
Brands like Gillette, Nike and Dove are successful with purpose because they stick to it. The purpose they pick is not only aligned to their values, it is closely linked to the product itself – and they persist with the purpose, consistently and diligently, which is why, whether it is award season or sales targets, the brand wins on both accounts.
We do not quite get this right here. It is the easiest thing in the world to be critical of Pakistani work. It is not the intent here. There are many brands that are putting purpose in their communication. This is a good thing. A very good thing. The problem is that we do it for the wrong reasons. No doubt, Gillette, Nike and Dove (which has consistently focused on ‘Real Beauty’ and women’s’ self-esteem, also have awards on their mind, but there is much more to it.
Pakistani brands pursue purpose as a one-off. A brand talks about sharing your plate but there is nothing more to back it up. A beverage brand aired a global copy during Covid-19, urging support for local businesses but lost an opportunity by not following it up with concrete action. Another brand highlighted the issue of women discarding their medical degrees for the life of a homemaker but did not demonstrate how that brand could bring about any sort of change – although, in the brand’s defence, it is consistently aligned with the message that cooking is not just a woman’s job.
This is the case across the board. There are no concrete measures attached to the purpose stated in the campaign. Neither is there any digital engagement behind these campaigns to start a meaningful conversation. Purpose in advertising cannot be seasonal or for awards alone, it has to be aligned with the brand’s values and with a role for the product. It needs to spark a conversation, polarising as it may be. The cause needs to have real-life impact as much as reel life impact – more than anything else, the purpose needs to be consistently pursued.
As advertisers, we have a role to play in changing society for the better. And we have the tools to do it too. The move towards purpose is a good one. But it will only bear fruit if we are true to it.
S. Hyder is a creative working at a Pakistani advertising agency.