Why do marketers struggle with authentic purpose?

Why do marketers struggle with authentic purpose?

Morag Cuddeford-Jones asks why so many brands’ attempts to do good end up coming across as crass, and discovers what striking the right tone really looks like

Purpose is an integral part of today’s marketing playbook. That’s not to trivialise it as a simple tactic. Many brands recognise the power their organisation has to do good, the benefits it can have for their wider society and yes, the pluses it has for the business too. Employees want to work for it, consumers want to buy from it. It is the original win-win.

Increasingly, perhaps because we are now so aware that brands come with a side order of purpose, marketers are being asked to take a stance on every issue. Silence is not an option, and the even stronger ‘Silence is compliance’ became a mantra during the Black Lives Matter movement, catalysed by George Floyd’s death in May 2020.

It was not an easy line to tread. Brands were encouraged to speak out but those that did so with even the merest hint of a promotional undertone were excoriated, and rightfully so.

But even without a sales push, even supposedly well-meaning messaging can fall flat. During the pandemic, separating McDonald’s arches and the Audi rings was cute, but did consumers really feel that these brands were standing side-by-side with them amongst all the death, illness, fear and financial hardship? Not so much.

Most recently, however, I was particularly struck by a piece of messaging that I thought absolutely struck the right tone, in what I thought was an innocuous email from Postmates, the US-based delivery service. Given as I’m based in the UK, I have no idea how I wound up on their mailing list but weekly newsletters plop into my inbox nonetheless.

Usually, I ignore them, given that even the most enthusiastic delivery guy won’t swim the Atlantic with some takeout, but this particular email grabbed my attention. The subject line simply said, ‘Stop Asian Hate’. This was in the immediate aftermath of the dreadful shooting of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three spas in Atlanta.

The email’s message was simple:

“We have Asian people working in our office and delivering on our platform.
We have Asian (and Asian-owned) restaurants in our app.
We would not be where we are today without Asian people. 
And a lot of us are hurting right now.”

It went on to say:

“Postmates is made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds, countries, and beliefs. And we like it that way.

Food is a way to preserve culture and build community. Sure, ordering from an Asian-owned restaurant is a good way to show your support—but it’s not enough.”

It was this – “it’s not enough” – that really grabbed my attention. Because naturally, showing support for Asian businesses is what most of us would think of to do in the event the community is targeted. Instead, Postmates’ email went further:

“Visit Hollaback to learn what to do when you see someone being harassed. The simple act of reporting anti-Asian crime gets cases documented and helps communities know where to deploy resources. 
Stop AAPI Hate has resources on how to stand up to the increase in anti-Asian racism since the pandemic. Please donate if you can.” 

That it included two ways people could help that critically would make a tangible difference to victims’ lives was, I felt, a real step away from the ordinary. This was much more than the ‘we feel you’ communications so often generated to make sure the brand is staying relevant.

This was a company using its resources – it has 10 million monthly active users on its app – to reach out and give people a direct route to allyship. Not only that, but its very first suggestion speaks to the heart of the privileged majority who don’t face racism or other forms of discrimination. It allows us to recognise our privilege and how we can use it to help.

For brands wondering what their relevancy is when it comes to aligning with causes, this is not the only answer, but I do feel it is a particularly good one.

In the latest issue of Catalyst, Issue 2, 2021, out this week, you can find out more about how brands are working to become allies, particularly in Poland where consumer reaction to supporting contentious causes is still mixed. Get your hands on a copy here.

Morag Cuddeford-Jones Editor, Catalyst magazine CIM
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