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Why brand purpose marketing isn’t working with young people

“Brand purpose” doesn’t count unless your brand actually has a purpose.

Why brand purpose marketing isn’t working with young people
[Photo: Paweł Czerwiński/Unsplash]

While “brand purpose” has been global marketing’s hottest new club, a new study from social impact consultancy DoSomething Strategic says that young people aren’t buying it.

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“The most surprising finding was that young consumers, are, in fact, not noticing—at least not to the degree we were expecting,” says Meredith Ferguson, managing director of DoSomething Strategic. “There were certainly some standouts: Fenty Beauty, Savage x Fenty, Dove, Thinx, Aerie, Lush. But so many brands didn’t even show up in any significant way. In fact, only 12% of our survey respondents had top-of-mind associations between brands they said they knew and specific causes.”

Yet, that said, 58% still reported they were more likely to buy from brands that back a good cause—if they know about it.

“Brands must champion their cause associations often and everywhere in order to break through the noise and have a real impact on the brand’s value among young consumers,” says Ferguson. “And don’t worry—consistently talking about what the brand stands for (education) is not the same as constantly talking about what the brand has done (boasting).”

Ferguson says the goal of the study was to scratch beneath the surface of the myriad of data being tossed around in recent years that is telling us and every CMO on the planet that purpose-infused brands matter more than ever, how it’s important for brands to actively take a stand on social issues, and that young consumers are the vanguard of this shift. More brands and companies than ever are taking steps toward more cause-, purpose-, or values-led marketing, so her central question here was, are young consumers actually noticing?

The study’s findings confirm what many “brand purpose” critics have been saying all along. Having a purpose is not a bad thing, but using purpose as just an ad gimmick is. As Public CEO Phillip Haid wrote back in January, “The lack of a real plan of action seems to follow a worrying trend of brands appropriating social purpose for compelling advertising creative, and quickly moving on next quarter to another ‘cool’ trend to sell their product.”

Unilever has been held as a gold standard in how a massive global corporation can actually use purpose to its advantage, without it being a fad or superficial investment. The company’s sustainable living brands grow 46% faster than the rest of its portfolio, and are delivering 70% of its growth. So why aren’t all its brands now sustainable living brands? As CMO Keith Weed told the World Federation of Advertisers last month, when you’re doing it right, it’s not easy. “It’s hard to get a purpose that really unlocks the brand,” he said.

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“Young consumers today don’t just want to just see brands take a stand on social issues, they want them to act on that stand—from the inside out,” says Ferguson. “The most exciting brands in the cause-marketing space–Lush, The Body Shop, Patagonia, United By Blue, Toms–are the ones doing more than just raising awareness and more than just writing a check. They’re inviting their consumers and employees to be a part of the social impact action.”

So first, brands need to take seriously any cause they intend to champion or adopt, whether it’s social, environmental, or political. And before shouting from the rooftops about it to all of us, companies need to make sure their own house is in order. When Gillette launched a new ad decrying toxic masculinity and celebrating gender equality, it didn’t quite get the reception it imagined because while in a cultural vacuum the sentiment was nice, too many people quickly saw the hypocrisy and contradictions between that message and the brand’s own products and past promotions–from “pink tax” razors to using scantily clad girls in event marketing, to continuing to advertise on Tucker Carlson’s TV show.

In sum, no one wants to hear about how you’re building up communities if you don’t pay any income tax. No one wants to hear about your commitment to gender equality if your executives are all male. And no one wants to hear about how much you love the planet if your supply chain is contributing to its demise.

“The biggest mistake brands make is limiting their support of a cause platform to simply advertising. Rather, they need to show that they’re truly invested in the cause platform they’re supporting,” says Ferguson. “That starts by putting their attention, energy, and resources on first addressing issues from within. This is how young people have redefined ‘authenticity.’ And make no mistake—young people are paying attention to that.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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