Enough with the brand babble about meaning and purpose

OPINION: People are mostly too busy, too lazy, or too indifferent to give two-fifths of a flying shit about 'brand meaning'. And recent positive press for purpose-based advertising is woefully off-base.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

The focus of today's sermon will be brand babble and the widespread and usually silly attribution of human characteristics to brands by marketers.

As I'm sure you're well-aware, we all want to have "relationships" with brands, and be part of a brand's "tribe" or "community" and "co-create" with brands, and understand "brand meaning," and of course, respect and trust their "brand purpose."

What? You don't?

Our first stop on this tour de farce, is this piece written by Mark Ritson. Facebook is probably the least trusted brand in the universe (the "metaverse" notwithstanding).

Ritson says,"Facebook repeatedly ranks low in consumer trust surveys, yet user growth continues, revealing the idea of trust in brands as anthropomorphic nonsense."

A piece published this week in MediaPost had this to say:

"Consumers love to hate Facebook, but they don't stop using it. The company just keeps growing. Daily active users, to cite one metric, were 1.91 billion on average for June 2021, an increase of 7 per cent year-over-year. Headcount at the company was 63,404 as of June 30, 2021, an increase of 21 per cent year-over-year."

The idea that the brands we use are intensely important to us, and that we spend time and energy sussing out their meaning and trustworthiness, is a deeply embedded marketing fantasy. For most people, their "relationship" with most of the brands they buy is shallow, transactional and contingent. Brands are not nearly as important or meaningful to consumers as most marketers would like them to be.

Marketers have the naive but apparently fact-resistant belief that customers care deeply about what they use, and buy according to a logical or emotional comparison of what they want and what the brand says it is "about." Sometimes they do. But mostly they don't.

Any scientific, non-ideological interpretation of consumer behavior can lead to only one conclusion: All other things being equal, most people buy most brands in most categories because they are the most familiar. Not because they are the most deeply understood or the most personally meaningful. The leading brands in virtually every category tend to be the most familiar, regardless of what the brand babblers say about their meaning.

Let's make this even simpler. People are mostly too busy, too lazy, or too indifferent to give two-fifths of a flying shit about the "meaning" of all the stuff they buy. Mostly, they buy on autopilot from familiar brands they feel comfortable with. 

"Naive and unjustified"

Next we move on to one of my favorite topics, brand purpose.

As regular readers know, here at The Ad Contrarian Worldwide Global Headquarters, we are fully in favor of brands doing good things, but very skeptical of "brand purpose" as a marketing tactic. We want corporations to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Not because they can make marketing hay by rubbing our noses in their virtue. Consequently, we have been very vocal and critical of the hypocrisy that pervades the whole "brand purpose" advertising craze.

An article in Marketing Week this week caught our attention. It was headlined: Criticism of brand purpose Is ‘naive and unjustified’, claims Peter Field.

Peter Field is a very highly regarded British researcher (who along with the great Les Binet) has done some breakthrough work on advertising effectiveness. While we have high regard for Peter, we have not always been comfortable with his methodology.

The article in question says that Field calls for an end to “vitriolic criticism piled on brand purpose by some industry commentators and practitioners" [that's me!] having found through new research that "well-executed purpose campaigns deliver superior effectiveness on a number of key business measures".

When you see vague terms like "superior effectiveness" the first question you have to ask is, superior to what?

Here is a chart that neatly summarizes the findings of the research in question. In a minute we'll see how the 'superior to what?' question becomes very germane.

We believe this research proves exactly the opposite of the impression left by the tone of the article. Before we make our case, let's issue this disclaimer. We are basing our opinion on the reporting of the research by the writer of the article. Peter has access to the primary responses and we don't. Nevertheless...

We believe the key finding of the research, as quoted from the article, is this: "Initially, the findings look bad for brand-purpose advocates. The average number of 'very large business effects' for all non-purpose campaigns stands at 1.6, while for brand purpose campaigns this figure drops to a markedly lower 1.1."

In other words, comparing apples to apples, brand-purpose campaigns perform "markedly lower" than non-purpose campaigns. This is no surprise to us "vitriolic" critics of brand-purpose advertising.

But then Peter does a little research sleight-of-hand that would be laughed out of any legitimate research facility. He cherry picks only the strong (most successful) purpose campaigns and compares them to all non-purpose campaigns. This is what happens when researchers are looking for an outcome, rather than the truth.

If you want to know the comparative effectiveness of all purpose campaigns, you compare them to all non-purpose campaigns. If you want to know the comparative effectiveness of strong purpose campaigns, you compare them to strong non-purpose campaigns. But if you want to find an outcome you're looking for, you compare strong purpose campaigns to all non-purpose campaigns.

Baseball fans, here's an analogy. Let's say you want to find out who hits better, left-handed hitters or right-handed hitters. So you do some research and you find that overall lefties bat .270 and righties bat .250. For those not familiar with baseball batting averages, this means these players get a 'hit' (make contact with the ball and end the play safely on base) 27 per cent and 25 per cent of the times they go up to bat, respectively.

But, dammit, you wanted righties to bat better. So you do a little trick and you cherry pick the top 50 righties, and find that on average they bat .290. Now you can say "well-performing righties deliver superior effectiveness on a number of key batting measures."

Belief that the research in question demonstrates that brand-purpose advertising is anything but less effective than non-purpose advertising is "naive and unjustified". 


Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.

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