Laurent Simon, Chief Creative Officer at VMLY&R London, explores the importance of purpose in today's world full of advertising clutter

In the 1970s, businessman and author Peter Nivio Zarlega spoke on his strategy. “In our factory, we make lipstick. But in our advertising, we sell hope.”

The product comes off the line. But the ideas that sell it come from somewhere else, appealing to something bigger than the brand or product.  

Fifty years on, advertising finds itself in a moment of existential crisis. In 1970, the average person saw about 500 ads a day. Fast forward to 2021, and estimates suggest consumers are exposed to anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 ads a day.

Today, modern advertising feels just as factory-produced as Zarlega’s lipstick. With an overfocus on quantity and an underappreciation of what quality means, consumers’ minds are treated like landfills, with many brands dumping messages, dusting their hands and moving onto the next target site. 

This is not only unsustainable, but there are consequences involved in the industry’s mass production of visual and sonic pollution - we need to consider the impact on consumer’s mental wellbeing, as well as the health of our own environment. 

As an industry we need make a shift – one that champions business responsibility and puts purpose front and centre. As agencies and brands we need to make progress, together, and this can only be done when we all start to look at the big problems over securing the easy wins. Purpose can no longer be an afterthought, especially when you consider that there is already a compelling business case for it. 

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The commercial case

Commercially speaking, companies that embrace purpose grow faster. In order for consumers to buy products, you need people to buy into the brand. 

Deloitte report found that purpose-oriented companies have higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more satisfied workforce who stay longer with them. The report found that such companies report 30% higher levels of innovation and 40% higher levels of workforce retention than their competitors.

While a 2019 consumer survey showed that price and quality remain the biggest factors driving customer decisions, 55% of respondents also believe businesses have a greater responsibility to act on issues related to their purpose. Those failing to do so risk being displaced by purpose-driven disruptors. For example, Unilever’s 28 “sustainable living” brands (i.e., brands focused on reducing Unilever’s environmental footprint and increasing social impact) such as Dove, Vaseline, and Lipton delivered 75% of the company’s growth and grew 69% faster on average than the rest of its businesses in 2018.

Accenture Strategy’s most recent global survey of nearly 30,000 consumers found that 62% of customers want companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices. 

At the end of the day, whatever sector you’re in, the products aren’t that different. A clearer competitive advantage is the fact that you have a set of values and outlook on the world. The closer a company’s purpose aligns to the beliefs of your audience, the better. 

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The consumer case

According to VMLY&R’s Brand Asset Valuator, nearly nine in 10 people expect brands to continue to be a positive influence and support the public good. It’s a consumer expectation that brands not only talk the talk but also walk the walk when it comes to activism, no matter the category.  

Companies are under pressure to take a stand on social issues - not just voicing their support but taking real action both inside and out, matching their messaging and values with their corporate practice and, therefore, engaging in authentic brand activism. 

The pressure comes from both consumers and employees. Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer found that the majority of employees wanted their CEOs to speak out about issues like climate change, diversity, income inequality, etc. The study also showed that 64% of consumers are “belief-driven buyers” meaning that they may choose to purchase, switch from, or boycott a brand based on its stance on social issues. 

Equally, the pressure is coming from the younger generations. Gen-Z are digital natives, and whilst their influence currently overshadows their buying power, it will soon change. This generation has been immersed in a 24-hour news cycle for their entire lives, and consequently they are ready to use their collective voice and buying power to champion those brands that reflect their values – and challenge those that don’t. 

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The solution is at the source

Purpose should be proactive. This means we need to move away from delivering creative solutions to problems, and instead move that creativity upstream.

We are all focused on coming up with solutions to problems that are too far downstream - meaning we can never truly solve them and will only somewhat dampen the impact. The role of advertising is to connect a brand’s actions with its purpose to ensure that change is being made at the source, rather than pass sole responsibility onto the consumer. 

Scholz & Friends in Germany used creativity and tampons to do just this. The idea was to outsmart tax law through its own regulations by selling organic tampons packaged in a book. Since a lower tax rate applies for books, they can sell these tampons at the lower tax rate of seven percent. Offering 45 pages of provocative illustrations and empowering content on the topic of menstruation, taboos and feminism, the book is more than just really smart packaging.

The work sparked a societal debate that generated awareness and helped the public see new ways of thinking — helping The Female Company, an online shop for feminine hygiene products, become a political player and, in turn, change unfair laws against women. 

While here at VMLY&R, we opened a pub with THINK! to help prevent young men from drink driving. A pub where you could not finish your pint. The Pint Block comes out of the strategy that we have been building for years – a mate doesn't let a mate drink drive. This ground-breaking work helped turn the influence of friends into a force for good, creating an environment where you can step in right at the point when drivers are thinking of having a pint. 

The campaign contributed to the biggest shift in over a decade in young men’s attitudes towards drink-driving and saw an 8% decrease in drink related accidents on the road – the lowest recorded number since records began. 

We need to push creativity and problem solving upstream. This change will require an industry-wide approach, with agencies and brands standing together. We need to produce work that still drives awareness, but also provides actionable solutions that can eradicate the issues we face. 

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Advertising ideas can’t afford to be mass-produced like lipstick. They can’t even just sell hope. They must spark change.