Is Purpose Overworked? Or Underused?

January 10, 2023

Is Purpose Overworked? Or Underused?

Less than a decade ago, if I were to say a marketing agency could be built around purpose, I would have been shot down. Immediately. 

That landscape has changed. Our agency, OBERLAND, has spent eight years proving that the proposition ‘people will pay more when businesses care’ is not only correct, it’s profitable. For more and more brands and marketers, purpose has become more than just something that’s “nice to have.” It’s seen as another tool in the toolbox – an effective and compelling way to connect with consumers on a deeper, more resonant, and often more emotional level while providing authentic societal benefit. 

And frankly, purpose has become an increasingly important quality for younger consumers. Without it, brands and marketers are often seen as lacking. We like to say that what digital was to marketers and brands in the ‘90s, purpose is today. Brands that failed to embrace digital back then often paid a price, both in terms of engagement and perception. 

When consumers give their hard-earned cash, they want to see brands put their money where their mouths are. Or, as the famous adman Bill Bernbach once said, ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.’ 

But not all advertisers or agencies have caught up to the value of purpose. Why? 

That’s likely because they think there’s no money in purpose-driven marketing. This is a huge miss, for both parties. And let’s be clear, this isn’t cause-marketing. Further, creating ad campaigns or marketing strategies informed by and geared towards purpose isn’t relegated to non-profits and NGOs anymore. Brands can—and should—engage in campaigns with a purpose. But purpose without differentiation isn’t worth much. Your voice needs to be distinct to disrupt the noise.

Don’t know how? Here are three ways to enter the purpose space for brands that are for-profit enterprises. 

1. Make product improvements that genuinely make the experience better.

Mastercard is a strong example of taking action that has tangible benefits for consumers while simultaneously reflecting purpose-driven values. In 2021 it introduced Touch Card, modified credit cards that enable blind and visually impaired people to distinguish between credit, debit and prepaid cards. With the addition of simple cut-out notches along the edge of the card, it opened a world of easier access to a community that has struggled to take full advantage of the marvels of the digital age.

The brand followed up on this innovation by launching True Name earlier this year.  Aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, and in particular to the trans community, this feature allows cardholders with participating banks to use their true first names on their personal credit cards, without requiring a legal name change. For trans people, this ability to own their identity was in some small ways seen as priceless.  

2. Harness your brand’s equity and legacy to reach new consumers and change perceptions. 

Modelo launched its aspirational “Fighting Spirit” ad campaign launched in 2018,  at a time when beer sales overall were flagging (White Claw, anyone?), and competition within the Mexican import category was intense. The basic concept of the campaign – it’s not where you come from, it’s what you’re made of – told stories of immigrant successes and how they reflected a ‘fighting spirit’ to achieve. It helped the brand grow not only among Hispanic beer drinkers, but attracted a new crop of what’s called ‘general market’ (i.e., white) consumers as well. Within a year of its launch the brand became only the second Mexican import to break the benchmark 100 million cases sold mark. 

3. Use your product to reflect real conversations.

“Period” shouldn’t be a four-letter word. But period care is talked about in advertising circles like it is—or rather, not talked about. While half the population menstruates, talking about menstruation is taboo. Thinx ( a leading period care brand, makes reusable period products, a sustainable counter to tampons and pads.

The product has a purpose in its own right. But a recent OBERLAND ad campaign, “How a New Generation Thinx,” used the product to spark real, frank conversations about the reality of menstruation. Periods are natural. They also curse you to a lifetime of double takes in the mirror to check for leaks. For many women, periods suck, and we need to stop pretending that menstruators are happily going jogging in white shorts every time they feel the first cramp. 

In two recent spots we created, the brand opened the door to a cross-generational discussion of menstruation and asked why there haven’t been developments in period-care for a hundred plus years. Periods shouldn’t be a cause of anxiety, the campaign claimed. Thinx can relieve that stress. 

This message, combined with this product, drove instant success. Thinx saw a 45 percent revenue increase for Thinx Teens within a month of the campaign’s launch, and a 113 percent lift in web sessions. These results show the urgent need for this cultural conversation, and with it, the power of purpose-driven products and messaging in driving revenue.

We believe firmly that purpose-driven work can help brands and marketers ‘make good money,’ which we define as building and distributing value in a way that allows everyone along the way to thrive, from shareholders to customers to associates and employees to the community, society and the environment. The proof is out there. All that’s needed now is the will and the commitment to get on board. 

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