Dentsu creative: Ill-conceived purpose campaigns are ruining the industry

Consumers are calling bullshit on cause-based work that isn't authentic, and so should award jurors, according to Dentsu's Toshihiko Tanabe.

Brands are being told they need to have more purpose—they can’t form a relationship with consumers without a cause. Surveys of consumers back this up, and as a juror at Cannes, Dentsu creative director Toshihiko Tanabe saw 16 of 21 Grand Prix awards given out to cause-related campaigns.

We all want to do meaningful work and be successful in our jobs, but it’s getting out of hand, he told a packed crowd at the Spikes Asia 2019 Inspiration stage.

"What the hell does this have to do with the brief that we’re working on?"

Case in point, an actual meeting that he had at Dentsu in Tokyo two weeks ago, with two writers, an art director, the ECD, a digital guy and himself. The ideas pitched in the meeting were to:

  • Save the rainforest
  • Fight Alzheimer’s disease
  • Bring people from isolated regions of Japan into the modern economy

"In short, they were trying to save the world," Tanabe said. But the brief was not from an NGO or even a client such as NatGeo. "The brief that we were working on that day was to introduce a brand new flavour—macaroni & cheese—for the crisp brand we were working on."

While Tanabe was too polite to shame specific brands, he notes it is this kind of forced brand purpose that has led to such ill-thought-out campaigns as a beer brand offering a women’s discount to make up for the gender pay gap and a soda company offering a $1 donation from every mega jug of soda sold to a juvenile diabetes foundation.

Calling BS

The problem, Tanabe says, is that consumers can detect BS really easily, and superficial campaigns are at best easily ignored and at worst actively harmful to brands.

But even when causes are legitimate, unless they’re authentically rooted in the brand and remain unchanged from CMO to CMO, people continue to ask why they’re engaged with this cause when they weren’t doing anything about it for the past few years. Consumers say, "Now you say this is important to us and our brand. Since when do you give a crap about this?" Tanabe said.

"Most of the time, most campaigns have nothing to do with what the brand stands for deep down," he added. "It’s going to cost us with the faith or the trust we’ve built over the years with the client who says ‘We’ve tried a purpose campaign. It didn’t work'."

Moreover, he argued, only 12% of people could correctly match brands with their causes. Not enough of them have the necessary consistency in what they stand for.

Is your cause at the root of your brand?

But Tanabe pointed to two great purpose campaigns, Volvo’s E.V.A. campaign, which shared data to help other carmakers protect women in crashes, and Ikea’s ‘ThisAbles’ campaign which developed 3D-printable modifications to its furniture to make it more friendly for disabled customers. These campaigns worked, he argued, because Volvo has been known for safety innovations since the '50s and Ikea in its very nature stands for the democratization of functional home furnishings for all.

"Purpose has to be deeply rooted in a brand," said Tanabe, who then shared the beginnings of what is to be a multi-year campaign by Toyota to reflect its transformation from car company to mobility company.

A purpose campaign is not something you borrow, but apply for years, he said, before giving a parting warning to the jurors at Spikes.

"I just trust that the jury is wise enough, when they see bullshit in purpose campaigns, to call it out."

This article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign Asia

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