Brand Purpose vs. Brand Hypocrisy:
How Your Company Can Truly Help the World

by | Mar 6, 2020 | Marketing Essays

I have created a new inspirational and informative speech on brand purpose and cause marketing versus brand hypocrisy that debuted in April 2020. I would be happy to give this talk in person or virtually at your company, event, or conference. Learn more here.


How Companies Can Truly Help the World (30 minutes)

Example deck:

(Note: I am updating this talk to include good and bad corporate responses to the coronavirus pandemic.)

In this inspiring keynote, Samuel Scott, a global marketing speaker and The Promotion Fix columnist for The Drum, will present the wrong and right ways to do brand purpose and have responsible commerce.

Some businesses do one-off commercials and think their jobs are done. Others hypocritically broadcast a message that is contradicted by their own internal company practices. The business world can do so much better. Samuel will show you how.

Full text

brand purpose and cause marketing

Fearless Girl. For International Women’s Day, a confident young woman staring down an angry bull. A girl standing up against the patriarchy on Wall Street. State Street Bank in the US showing its support for women. And from a marketing standpoint, State Street using the statue to promote an index fund comprised of companies that have many women in senior leadership. The tagline: “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.”

Wonderful, right?

Well, there were just two problems.

First, Fearless Girl fails as an advertisement. Today, if you ask people which company commissioned the statue, I doubt anyone remembers. And if no one remembers your company or product after seeing an ad, then the campaign has failed. As others have mentioned, Fearless Girl works better as a piece of art than as an advertisement.

And second, State Street Bank was completely hypocritical. That same year that Fearless Girl was created, the bank paid $5m to settle US government charges that the company paid female senior executives lower salaries and bonuses. The company did not go to court even to try to prove its innocence.

It does not stop there. Today, I will go through examples of several companies claiming to do “cause marketing” or “brand purpose” but are completely hypocritical in their own business practices. And then, I will show what everyone here can do to truly help the world instead.

But first, a brief introduction. After careers in both journalism and marketing, today I write The Promotion Fix column on marketing and media for The Drum and travel around the world to speak about what I report. I use my dual experiences to discuss the marketing industry with the mindset of a neutral journalist with nothing to sell except his ideas.

So, here is another example. Last year, Gillette ran this famous ad calling for men to behave better — especially towards women.

But the company has always paraded women around in skin-tight clothing with the word Gillette on their derrières. Too many companies today claim to support feminism but still treat women as nothing more than decorations.

But look at Gillette products too. Now, anyone who works with brands knows that most consumer products are essentially the same. There is no real difference between them. But in the United States, shaving cream for women costs 20% more than shaving cream for men. And razor blades for women cost 21% more. If Gillette really wants women to be equal to men, then the company’s prices should be equal.

As Australian copywriter Ryan Wallman puts it, if you want to create a product for women, there are two rules: Make it pink, and increase the price.

And now, auditing service company KPMG is the title sponsor sponsor of the Women’s PGA Championship. Here is an ad.

And guess what? KPMG has been the subject of a $400m class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern of gender discrimination, denying promotions to women and penalizing them for taking maternity leave. And for my column, when I asked them to comment on the difference between the ad and their actual corporate actions, they did not respond.

And now, an ESPN ad during the NCAA basketball Women’s Championship.

But guess what? Former anchor Adrienne Lawrence filed a lawsuit alleging she was not granted a full-time position due to her complaints about unwelcome sexual advances, lewd comments from men about female colleagues and inappropriate exchanges with them.

Nike has a 90-second commercial that tackles gender bias.

But when runner Mary Cain joined a prestigious Nike running program, they pressured her to become thinner, and thinner, and thinner. Cain obsessed over her weight. Her body fat and estrogen levels fell. She did not get her period for three years, and she broke give bones. She became depressed and started cutting herself.

And for International Women’s Day, Google said the company is “recognizing strong, courageous women who are pushing us toward a more equal future.”

But a New York Times report found out that management protected high-ranking employees accused of sexual misconduct — including the giving of a $90 million payout to Android creator Andy Rubin to get him to leave the company quietly. That led to a mass employee walkout.

And my favorite example comes from the marketing industry itself. Last year, the elite Advertising Week conference in New York held sessions with titles such as these:

“The Power of Purpose: What Does it Mean for a Company to be Values-Based and Purpose-Driven?”
“Always Bet on Equality: Why Brand Purpose and Inclusivity Win Every Time.”
“The State of Women’s Representation in Advertising.”
“Raising the Stories of Women Who Came Before Us.”
“Eyes on 2020: Fearless Female Voices Reshaping Media and Impacting the World.”

Sounds good, right? But then the event’s wrap party included this performance from the musician Pitbull.

Zut alors. Wait, if I’m not French, am I allowed to say that?

In the words of Katie Deighton, a colleague of mine at The Drum who was at the event, “This is really a visual metaphor for what ad land says it wants to do versus what it really wants to do.”

So, what’s going on? We have a bunch of global companies, almost all of which are run by old, white men, treating women horribly while exploiting feminism and using International Women’s Day to sell stuff.

As Katie Martell in Boston puts it, “Profiting from these ideals while perpetuating the opposite is not clever. It’s exploitation.” She calls it ‘faux-feminism’ because it masks the underlying core problem.”

And it all begins with faulty logic.

In 2011, Jim Stengel, a former global marketing officer at P&G, published Grow. He selected the top 50 brands and looked to see what they had in common.

He found that they all wanted to improve peoples’ lives and saw that their stock prices, taken together as an index, grew 393% over the prior ten years. He used this information to argue that companies need brand purpose to maximize profits.

But the book was based on nothing but logical fallacies.

The Post Hoc Fallacy states that if B follows A, then A must cause B. But say that I speak here and then the stock market jumps 10%. Did I cause that? Of course not. I wish. Survivorship bias is when you look only at the winners to see what they had in common. Stengel pre-selected brands that had already been successful. Instead, he should have look at all companies using brand purpose to see how many of all of them were successful.

As Richard Shotton put it: “Stengel’s finding, if you restate it at its most basic, is that brands that feature in the top 0.1% of companies have performed well in the stock market. That’s circular logic. Because advertisers fervently hoped that the theory was true, they forgot to check whether it was. They have succumbed to a collective bout of wishful seeing.”

And that leads to companies overstating the importance of brand purpose.

People who work in marketing know which brands stand for what. But we live in a bubble. In the real world, DoSomething Strategic found that only 12% of people aged 13-25 had correct top of mind associations between brands and their individual social causes.

Further, Gravy Analytics also reported that public stances on political or social issues did not lead to increased store visits, and other findings were counterintuitive. Conservatives were 13% more likely than liberals to visit pro-environment outlet Patagonia. Liberals were only 3% more likely than conservatives to visit Ben & Jerry’s. Conservatives were 8% more likely than liberals to visit Starbucks.

Look at it this way. If I ask you in public if companies should help the world, of course you will say yes. You don’t want to look bad. But what you will actually do is another story. As ad legend David Ogilvy once put it, “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

Because when you look at the best data, 70% of people in the US, 76% in the UK, and 68% in India did not care one way or the other whether companies should take stands on political or social issues. For the most part, consumers are ambivalent.

People who work in marketing are not the market. We need to be customer-first and do what the market truly wants.

And here are more examples of where it can go wrong.

For International Women’s Day in 2018, Budweiser highlighted on social media various female employees in environmental safety, health management and mechanical engineering.

More recently, the brand changed its labeling to support lesbians as well as gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people during Pride Week in London.

There was just one problem. The brand still has the sexist Budweiser Girls on Facebook.

And it’s not just another example of treating women as decorations. Almost everyone is a young, white, blond woman. Budweiser is the Fox News of beers.

And here is BP.

In 2000, BP rebranded from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum.

But as Mark Ritson has found, companies such ExxonMobil, BP and Shell spend 99% of their ad budget saying how green they are, but 99% of their actual business practices remain focused on fossil fuels. That is greenwashing at its worst.

Ritson also highlighted this ad from Cadbury.

But Cadbury’s owners paid zero corporate tax in the UK in 2017. Think about how many poor people and people of color Cadbury could have helped if they had paid a fair amount of tax. More on that later.

And Jeff Bezos always says that he wants to use Amazon’s money to fund private space travel.

But Amazon has historically paid almost zero taxes as well. Just think about how much Jeff Bezos could help planet Earth by using that money here. Amazon workers live in cars. They sleep in tents. They must urinate in plastic bottles during the shifts. Amazon warehouses are more dangerous than the worst prisons. That is complete hypocrisy.

And here is Starbucks.

Starbucks celebrates trans employees in ads, but BuzzFeed News reported that they are outed or misgendered by other employees, confronted by their former names in company software, and having trouble accessing gender-affirming medical treatment under company employee insurance plans.

And here’s another example from the marketing industry itself.

At Cannes Lions last year, ‘brand purpose’ was a popular topic. Sessions discussed a transgender Indian mother, a five-step guide to building a brand with purpose, the future of brand activism, and advertising around themes such as the environment.

But a group called Extinction Rebellion crashed the event. They held meetings about climate change and tried to get the ad industry elite there to agree to significant business changes that would help to stop global warming.

The marketing elite at Cannes Lions had a real opportunity to help the world significantly. And what happened? Fourteen activists were arrested. So much for putting their company dollars where their mouths were.

Just see what happens when someone actually wants to do something real about the environment. Extinction Rebellion exposed the feel-good sentiments as utterly hypocritical.

So, let’s forget about all the hypocrisy. Here is how your companies can truly help the world.

Businesses have shareholders and stakeholders. Shareholders are the owners. Stakeholders are anyone who the business affects — the workers, the community, the environment, and so on. In general, European companies care more about all of the stakeholders than US companies. In America, all companies care about is making the owners a lot of money at any cost to the other stakeholders.

We need all companies do adopt the European model.

Because actual brand purpose goes further than the marketing department. It is something that the entire business embodies. HR policies. The supply chain. The product. Legal. Finance.

Here are some examples. You advertise that you support gay rights. But does HR grant full marriage and parental benefits to same-sex couples even if it is not mandated by your country’s laws? Does your supply chain use child or slave labor? Do you pay men and women equally? Do you have zero tolerance for sexual harassment? Does Finance pay a fair amount of taxes? Do you include these activities in your annual reports and shareholder communications?

Do not look at what companies say. Look at what companies do. As a trade journalist covering the marketing industry, I do exactly that.

Here is my favorite example of a purpose-centric business. Mason Wartman was a Wall Street stockbroker. But his dream was just to run a local pizza place. So, he did that with Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia.

One day, a customer bought a slice for a homeless man outside. And that gave Mason an idea. People could “pay it forward” by paying for slices for people in need. One slice would be one post-it note on the wall. Anyone could come in, take a post-it note off the wall, and get a free slice. No questions asked.

And that gave food to so many hungry people.

Mason never sought publicity. But customer started talking. Eventually, the local media found out. He got press coverage. Eventually, talk show host Ellen asked him to appear on her nationwide show. And his little pizza place became famous.

And that is what happens when businesses truly want to do something help the world rather than saying they want to in advertising.

Here’s a big picture example. Do you have a B Corp Certification? The global non-profit organization measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance from a company’s operations and business model to its workers, community, environment, customers, supply chain, input materials, charitable giving, and employee benefits.

Certified companies receive benefits such as a listing in the B Corp Global Directory, a registry of 2,750 businesses in 64 countries that consumers can use to determine where to spend their money. But if you truly believe in doing good, this certification is the only place to start.

But here are a few additional, specific recommendations of mine.

First, open offices are the white-collar equivalent of clothing sweatshops. Stop using them. Soul-destroying open offices cause physical and mental harm, and they do nothing to help collaboration. Businesses use them only to save money. But you should treat your workers better.

YouTube, stop your algorithm’s spreading of far-right propaganda, anti-vaccine ideas, and conspiracy theories.

Facebook, stop polarizing society before you destroy it.

Men, stop treating your own female employees terribly while you produce hypocritical pro-woman advertisements.

And above all: tech companies, pay your fucking taxes.

After all, if you want to know whether a company truly believes in brand purpose, look at how much tax they pay. Taxes are the most important contribution that companies give to society.

In the end, I wish more companies would follow the example of Trader Joe’s in the US.

You see, too many companies treat employees as widgets. Pay them as little as possible, maximize their utility, and dispose of them when they are no longer useful.

But Trader Joe’s believes in fairness and equality. The company pays fair wages and treats them well. It includes fair trade products on its shelves, where coffee farmers or cheese producers in other countries are paid livable wages for the products they export to the United States. And Trader Joe’s makes sure that its customers know about this so that they are more inclined to make purchases from the company as a result.

Workers are not a cost. They are an asset.

If I could summarize with one thought, it would be this: Focus not on what companies say but on what they do. And that includes everyone here.

If you would like a copy of this presentation, just email me here, and I will send it to you.

But in the end, I believe it all comes back to Maimonides. He was a medieval Jewish philosopher who wrote about the best types of charity. He believed that the best good deeds are anonymous. If you give money to someone who is poor, it is moral when he does not know it comes from you. It is not moral when you expect recognition from it.

In the same context, Brian Millar once put it perfectly: “Purpose is something you believe, not something you make up one day as a marketing strategy.” If you do brand purpose just to sell stuff, you are not being moral. If you do it just because it is right, then you are being moral. In fact, it is even better if your brand purpose costs you money.

Now, I am a realist. I know that we all want both to sell stuff and to help the world. So, how do we do that?

I know that I criticized Gillette earlier in this talk, but I do think this ad is the perfect example. It inspires women, and it sells razor blades. If only the prices were the same as razor blades for men. [Play video.]

Ladies and gentlemen, please go out and do some real good. Thank you.

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