“Purpose fatigue:” time for a communications re-set?

A little like the Oscars in the film industry, the annual Cannes Advertising Festival in June provides revealing insights into the world of marketing and communications today. After the froth and excitement of the festival week has died down, it’s instructive to take a step back and look at some of the underlying trends.

Who won the big awards, and why? What is in fashion, what is out? And what does that say about our society? – because we are all consumers of advertising. And more than that, as a wise critic once said about social media: “if it’s free, we are the product.”

Last month, the Cannes Lions (as the festival is now named) awarded 26 top prizes, known as the Grands Prix.

By my count, only two out of 26 were awarded for work that had the traditional aim of advertising: to encourage the purchase or use of products and services. As David Ogilvy used to say: “It’s not creative, unless it sells.” But that was a few years ago.

Now – encouraging sales can be indirect. Customers are a lot more savvy these days. They want to know, who is the company or organisation behind a product or a service? What are their ethics? their values? Are they in tune with mine? And thanks to Google, it’s easy to find out.

So the conversations about ethics and values need to be managed. We know “communications agencies” whose primary skill is getting negative stories about you (personally), your company or your brand, off the first page of a Google search. And while obscuring negative comment can be essential, providing positive spin on what you do is also important.

In recent years, the embodiment of a Company’s positive aims and values has become known as its purpose.

Not everyone agrees: Marc Pritchard, Global CMO of Procter & Gamble, asked at Cannes about his company’s purpose, said something more like “getting things cleaner.” But all too many people are simply defining their purpose by jumping on the fashionable bandwagons of sustainability, diversity, equality and inclusion.

As several of the less sycophantic journalists noted (the ones who don’t simply parrot the marcoms agencies’ press releases), the result was “purpose fatigue.”

Cannes awarded top prizes to nicely crafted audio work supporting the restitution of looted historical artefacts, a book remembering the ousting of a Portuguese dictator; and well-meaning creative content recognising the challenges of people with disabilities and mental health issues, advocating gender and economic inclusion, opposing testing products on animals, condemning cultural ethnic cleansing in Latin America, driving education about women’s health and nutrition issues, and highlighting the value of exercise bikes in Belgian prisons (a first world problem, that last one, and a highly questionable recipient of two Grand Prix’s). All about purpose: none about customer benefit.

Personally, I thought that ‘Hope Reef’ (by the AMV BBDO agency in UK, for Sheba catfood) was the worst example. You can see how they got there: Cats eat catfood > some catfood contains fish > some fish live on coral reefs > let’s save a coral reef > and make it the only coral reef big enough to be seen from space! (except we don’t have the budget for that, so let’s bung Google a few dollars and say it’s the only coral reef that can be seen on a Google map).

Unless of course, the real ‘Brand purpose’ of Sheba is not cat health and well-being (as I used to think) but the assuaging the guilt feelings of humans who imprison animals in their houses for their own pleasure, in which case a Grand Prix for Strategy might be appropriate, if a little cynical. But the Grand Prix for Media???

So where do we go next?

Not wishing to repeat what’s already been said: but we need less talk about purpose next year.

Of course, a corporate purpose has a value: it helps a company define what it should or should not be doing; and to attract, engage with and retain talent. But ultimately, a corporate purpose is fundamentally self-serving.

An interesting line of thought came from Jackie Cooper, founder of one of the world’s best PR firms, who said ‘we are going beyond purpose, to action and activism.’

I’d see it slightly differently, however.

In among the purpose-washers, there were some really nice, original, effective, socially beneficial ideas as well, which also won Grands Prix. Interestingly, most of them were more to do with product design than communications. Doing, rather than saying.

For me, these were deserving prize-winners:

  • Data Tienda’ by DDB Mexico for WE Capital, creating a credit history for ‘unbanked’ women in Colombia
  • Nike Sync’ by RG/A London for Nike, an app to optimise training for female athletes around their menstrual cycle
  • Realtone’ by Google in USA, to improve the quality of photography of People of Colour, compared to previous cameraphone technology which was optimised for ‘white’ skin tones
  • Backup Ukraine’ by Polycam and Virtue Worldwide for Unesco, to create 3D records from amateur photographs of statues and artefacts in Ukraine under threat of destruction, from Russia’s special military operation
  • Piñatex’, by L&C New York For Dole Sunshine Company, creating an alternative to leather from Pineapple fibres which would have go to waste and caused pollution
  • I will always be me’ by VMLY&R New York, for Dell, creating voice bank records for Motor Neurone disease sufferers, so they can continue to talk using their own voices
  • The Killer Pack’ by VMLY&R Mumbai for Maxx Flash, a mosquito repellent for indoor use – creating packaging which also kills mosquitos in trash collection sites, where they usually breed

Other companies might also do better, to think about what they can contribute to society. ‘

Making a contribution, rather showing off, is a key part of Gen Z values; as illustrated by Edelman’s new Gen Z report, which was being extensively trailed at Cannes.

The pandemic brought this home too: the value of collaboration, rather than a race to corporate glory, was a huge learning from an experience that will have shaped a generation of young people.

As JFK famously said: “Ask not what America can do for you, but what you can do for America.’