Many marketing pundits argue that companies should make environmental and social “purpose” an integral part of marketing communications. Read on to learn why you should approach purpose marketing cautiously.
Purpose marketing can be defined as the use of messaging in external communications that expresses a company or brand’s core mission and values. It includes messaging that highlights how a company or brand is positively impacting the lives of employees and customers and/or society as a whole. The term also refers to communications that spell out where the company or brand stands on important social issues.
Numerous research studies have purported to prove that consumers and business buyers now place great importance on the social responsibility track record of the companies or brands they do business with. Many of these studies also indicate that potential buyers now expect companies and brands to “take a stand” on important social issues.
As a result, many marketers have become enamored with purpose marketing. Industry media outlets such as Advertising Age, Adweek, Marketing Week, and The Drum have frequently published articles describing the purpose marketing campaigns and other social responsibility efforts of well-known brands such as Dove, Nike, Gillette, and Patagonia.
In reality, however, the case for purpose marketing isn’t nearly as clear-cut as the hype would suggest. Several recent research studies have painted a more nuanced picture of purpose marketing. These studies suggest that marketers should approach purpose marketing cautiously and thoroughly evaluate potential benefits and risks before they launch a significant purpose marketing program.
Here are a few of the highlights from two surveys conducted earlier this year.
The Bentley University-Gallup Survey
The 2023 Bentley-Gallup Business in Society study was based on a survey of 5,458 U.S. adults (ages 18 and older). The sample for the survey was weighted to be demographically representative of the U.S. adult population. The maximum margin of sampling error for results based on the entire survey sample was + or – 1.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level for response percentages around 50%. The survey was conducted May 8-15, 2023.
Less than half of the survey respondents (41%) said that businesses should take a public stance on current events. This was a decline of seven percentage points from the 2022 edition of the survey.
The main driver of this decline was waning support from respondents who identified as Democrats. In the 2022 survey, 75% of Democratic respondents said businesses should take a public stance on social issues. That percentage dropped to 62% in the 2023 survey.
The researchers asked survey participants about 11 categories of issues (e.g. racial issues, gun issues, LGBTQ+ issues, etc.). Of these 11 issue categories, climate change (at 55%) and mental health (at 52%) were the only two that a majority of survey respondents said businesses should take public positions on.
Perhaps not surprisingly, younger respondents, Asian, black, and Hispanic respondents, and respondents identifying as Democrats were more likely to say that businesses should take a public stance on social issues.
The Ipsos Survey
The Ipsos study was a survey of 1,096 U.S. adults (ages 21 and older). The survey was conducted February 8-9, 2023, and the findings were described in a paper titled, What the Future: Purpose.
The findings of this research revealed that consumer attitudes regarding brand purpose are more nuanced than generally believed. For example:
85% of the survey respondents said global or national brands should play a role in solving global problems, but 51% said companies should remain neutral on social issues.