Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC

This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.

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Are capitalism, business and the role of brands and marketing shifting towards an inevitable new, post-Milton Friedman era? An era where the purpose and responsibility of business shifts from “(solely) increasing profits” to “producing profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet”?

Or is all this purpose talk a massive distraction of marketers’ and agencies’ energies and resources, leading to yet another layer of excessive brand ego, purpose-washing and ever deeper cynicism? 

This debate – thank goodness – is moving forward from its simplistic, black-or-white dogmatism. We now have a growing body of well-documented case studies, books and articles that help us understand the difference between success and failure. We can now move forward from blanket statements towards a more constructive discussion based on the situational context, opportunity and risk. 

No matter where your client stands on the purpose debate, it’s a debate that can no longer be ignored. Brandpie surveyed 700 CEOs from six markets in 2020 around the world, including China and India. 

  • CEOs rank company purpose as the most important factor for driving business growth – more important than attracting talent, company culture, employee training and employee value proposition.
  • One in four CEOs (27%) say they already have a company purpose and 59% say they don't have a company purpose but want to make one.
  • The nine in 10 CEOs (87%) whose company has a purpose statement say purpose plays an integral role, driving initiatives across the business.

Are we facing the same or a different set of opportunities in Asia?

It is difficult to draw hard and fast generalisations comparing Asia to the rest of the world. The historical, cultural and economic landscape is very different within Asia, which leads to different priorities and dynamics when it comes to purpose. For example:

  • The idea of business serving communities and the environment is not new in Asia. Indeed, it has a stronger legacy in many parts of Asia. For example, business in Japan is oriented more towards providing mass and lifetime employment for its citizens versus delivering profit and returns to the richer shareholder class. Financially inefficient, perhaps, but lower unemployment undoubtedly serves a more equitable social good.
  • Economic and business innovation across Asia over the last few decades has led to an unparalleled level of economic inclusion. Thanks to more democratic economic activity, more families have been lifted out of poverty across China, South Asia and Southeast Asia than ever before. Microfinancing (Grameen Bank in Bangladesh), mobile payments (Paytm), e-commerce (Alibaba and its subsidiaries) and ride-hailing (Grab, Gojek) have flourished across this region and led to financial empowerment and social economic advances on a seismic scale. 
  • Brands and business have historically addressed consumer and social needs in the areas of health, education and nutrition, filling the gaps where governments often fell short. These have a mixed record with some positive advances (eg Lifebuoy reducing infant mortality through improved hygiene, AIA promoting healthier lifestyles across the region) but still, problems remain in some less regulated markets (eg unhealthy levels of added sugars in growing up milk and child-marketed beverages in SEA, contributing to an explosion of obesity).
  • Cultural, religious and social legacies across Asia have created a range of entrenched prejudice, bias and stereotypes across Asia. Discrimination across dimensions of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and physical and mental ableness is rife across the region, to different degrees. Many brands are publicly addressing these issues successfully (eg Ariel gender household equality in India, Petronas promoting ethnic harmony in Malaysia, Globe Telecom driving positive social acceptance of LGBT in the Philippines, Brooke Bond promoting communal harmony in India, Nike empowering women across India, China and Japan).
  • The origins of the recent rendition of “purpose” have emerged as a response to the consequences of extractive, neo-liberalist capitalism, which itself was a Western “export” to Asia. Many of the crimes against humanity in Asia and Australia can be traced back to the colonial and post-colonial activities of the West. Today, much of the environmental crisis experienced in Asia can be traced back to Western market forces. For example, the majority of plastic waste in SEA was exported from the West. The palm oil industry, which has wrecked biodiversity across the former rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, was set up to service consumer opportunities and needs in the West.

The purpose issue is as complex, heterogenous and sensitive as any other cultural issue in Asia, and requires a detailed and sensitive situational examination to get it right. Generalisations and judgments that do not take in cultural and historical contexts will risk failure and disapproval. 

How can agencies in Asia help clients navigate these issues and get them right?

By definition, agencies act on behalf of the brands we serve. We are their agents. We have a duty-of-care responsibility for the current and future health and well-being of the brands under our stewardship. We must represent and act in the best interests of brands at three different interfaces. The issue of purpose, in its many manifestations, lies in each of these interfaces. 


Brand interface

Key purpose questions

Between the brand’s proposition and the customers it serves

How is purpose good for sales and business?

Between the brand’s business model and the macro-environment context

How is the brand’s business aligned with society and environment, and therefore sustainable?

Between the brand’s past and the brand’s future

How is the brand’s stance future-proofed for future change and risk?

First, we must define and align what purpose is, and what it is not. Purpose remains an ambiguous and often misunderstood concept. As the diagram below shows, there are several different interpretations and associations of purpose that broadly differ in terms of how peripheral or central the purpose is to the organisation’s central mission and business model. 

There is an important distinction to be made between “brand as purpose” – which emphasises outward and consumer-based definitions – and “business as purpose” – which emphasises a more holistic and fundamental role.

Content image

Below are some initial guidelines surrounding purpose, from which to generate a solid foundation for the discussion.  

  • Purpose will only work if it is good for business. As Professor Mayer’s definition above states, an organisation’s purpose requires alignment to the business model and commercial actions.
  • Purpose works best from the inside out, starting in the C-suite and boardroom, rippling out through the organisation’s workforce and out to investors and to the people who buy. “Successful companies – no matter what they champion – approach purpose as a promise they make to themselves first, so they can follow through on that promise to their customers, and to wider society in the long run.” This makes the term “brand purpose” potentially problematic, since it emphasises a more peripheral, consumer-oriented version of the term.
  • Advertising and branding alone are not enough to “deliver purpose”. Purpose is about action and achievements, not gestures or commitments. From paying your taxes, to populating your boards, to transforming your supply chain.
  • Purpose is a journey, not a single act. Speak to any purpose-driven organisation and they will confirm they are on a journey. Who has already achieved net zero carbon emissions? Who has achieved full DEI representation at all levels of the organisation?
  • You will be increasingly judged on your “purpose record”.  Maybe you are well on the road to enlightened purpose. Maybe you are thinking about it or taking your first steps towards defining it. Maybe you have more pressing priorities. Either way, you will be increasingly judged on these issues – from your investors, your lenders, your talent, your influencers and your customers. Not forgetting the activists.
  • It is not easy to get purpose right. There will be failures, successes and all shades of grey in between. We now have more evidence and opportunity to learn from the lessons of others. Best practices and benchmarks will emerge. Innovation will disrupt and improve how we operate profitably, more ethically and sustainably.

Once you have defined your guardrails, below are three ways in which agencies can help their brands and clients manage the challenges and opportunities of purpose. 

  1. Represent the world to your client
  2. Facilitate the purpose conversation
  3. Represent your client’s business and brand purpose to the world
1. Represent the world to your client

Agencies act as the interface between our clients, their stakeholders and the wider cultural and environments in which they operate. We are the source of insight, perspective and conscience for our clients and their brands. 

Agencies should be advising our clients as to whether stakeholders care about the potential issues at stake, noting that different markets of stakeholders will have different perspectives, priorities and timeframes

  • Talent markets, comprising C-Suite, senior leadership, current and future workforce, current and future partners and suppliers. “Is this a company I want to work for and do business with? Is it aligned with my values?”
  • Financial markets, comprising analysts, fund managers, institutional and private investors. “Is this a company I wish to invest in?”
  • Regulatory markets, comprising regulators, watchdogs, activists and influencers. “Is this a company acting as a responsible corporate citizen?”
  • Consumer markets, comprising current and prospective customers, commentators and the general public. “Is this a company I want to buy products and services from?”

Understanding the extent to which your stakeholders care about the different purpose issues will help assess the opportunities and risks associated with different courses of action, focusing on different purpose issues.  

This requires smart methodologies and use of data. Beware of over-reliance on surveys and the risk of virtue signaling and confirmation bias associated with that methodology. Data providers such as Significance Systems provide objective, detached and trackable sentiment of these issues.  

In addition, agencies can provide signals of cultural change towards the key issues of purpose. Fringe issues and sensitivities of today could become the critical issues of tomorrow. As an example, how does the issue of diversity play out in your market? In some markets, it is about income equality across social economic strata, in others it is about gender and age representation, or race and ethnicity. 

For others, disability and neuro-diversity issues are the factors that the public cares about. 

These issues are complex, dynamic, unstructured and unevenly dispersed across markets, communities and cultures. It takes a smart agency to provide meaning and insight on what matters, and what deserves priority client attention and investment. 

2. Facilitate the purpose conversation

Agencies are well-equipped to develop an informed point of view about purpose and its relevance for your client’s business and brands. Be clear on the future risks of ignoring purpose now and be clear on the risks related to purpose-washing. 

We must resist the urge to always a) attach purpose to a brand rather than the underlying business, b) communicate the purpose publicly. Sometimes this will be the right course of action, often it won’t be. 

Depending on your assessment, you may conclude to “leave purpose alone”. As Nick Asbury reminds us, “there are countless examples of businesses doing brilliantly without anything close to a social purpose.” Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. 

For many others, you might conclude that purpose is more helpfully defined as organisational ESG, requiring strategies to improve the environmental, social and governance standards of the company’s operations that socially conscious investors, employees, activists and influencers use to assess its reputation.

And for the ambitious and progressive, you may conclude that purpose is something that can and should be worn publicly by your brand because your position and track record on the selected issue really does matter – not only to your investors and employees but to your current and future customers too. 

For the promise of purpose to be fully realised, these discussions necessarily need to go further than the brand and marketing manager. Agencies can develop the strategic case for (or against) committing to purpose, help your client make the case internally and facilitate senior leadership discussions.

And whatever you do, check if your client is paying its taxes.

3. Represent your client’s business and brand purpose to the world

Once clients have a clear stance and strategy towards purpose, agencies can and should take responsibility for representing the appropriate purpose “narrative” in the different stakeholder markets. Some of the likely decisions that need to be worked through are:

  • Do the purpose actions need to be talked about? Or are they just actions that need to be done?
  • Which stakeholders need to be communicated to? And to what end?
  • What is the vehicle of the purpose narrative? The organization or the brand?
  • What is the most compelling tone with which to communicate? What may seem a big deal to you might just be expected of you by your stakeholders. 

As external agencies, we have the understanding and the responsibility to deter our client from green-washing, woke-washing or purpose-washing. 

And we can start this journey by addressing inclusivity in advertising. 

Inclusivity in advertising

Whilst agencies can advise on the overall opportunities and risks of purpose to our clients’ brands, we bear more direct and specific responsibility for how we represent our brands and client organisations to the public through advertising. 

Advertising signals the brand’s attitude towards people and society – specifically the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – and therefore whether the brand holds a progressive and inclusive perspective or a traditional, closed perspective. 

Decide whether you want to lead the future or reflect the past

Advertising is both a reflection and a driver of cultural norms. Norms evolve in every culture and with every piece of advertising we send out into the world, we are choosing either to accelerate, keep pace with or fall behind these changes.

It may seem easier and safer to stick to status quo representation and portrayals but that approach risks amplifying any existing negative representation. Adopting a more progressive approach requires more effort and courage but it could do wonders to keep your brand contemporary and send out a positive signal to your internal talent.

Assess how representative your advertising casting is

Kantar makes a very compelling positive case for brands to accelerate the diversity and inclusion in advertising. Its research indicates that several groups remain significantly under-represented, based on superficial casting cues alone. 

  • The elderly. Across nearly every Asian country, the proportion – and buying power – of the elderly is increasing. And yet only 6% of advertising features someone over the age of 65. Only 25% of ads feature someone over the age of 45.
  • The disabled. 15% of the population has some form of disability, yet only 1% of ads feature someone with a disability.
  • Kantar estimates that just 8% of ads from Asia feature someone of a different ethnic origin to the home country and just 10% of ads feature people of different skin colour.

If you consider your brand to be mainstream or inclusive in any way, consider how representative your casting is, versus the demographics of your population.

For example, let’s take something seemingly innocuous as an issue: the family. If you consider your brand to be family-oriented, do you represent the full range of possible family composition in your advertising? Increasingly, family households comprise three, sometimes four generations.

In many cases, the family’s “parents” are not biological parents but adoptive parents, aunts, uncles and elder siblings.

What is the incidence of single-parent families in your market and do they deserve representation? 

Dispel the myth of alienation

The standard reason for not exploring more inclusive casting in advertising is “we don’t want to alienate our core consumer”.  “Alienate” is a strong and loaded term, often applied as an article of faith with no real-world evidence. The word alienation frames the world on an us-and-them basis, which discourages inclusivity. Challenging the assumptions behind alienation can feel taboo, so examine these assumptions and challenge them as appropriate. 

  • Assumption 1: Consumers must “see themselves” in the advertising for them to consider it relevant. Ask your consumer to list their favourite films, TV shows, music artists, sports stars, influencers – you will find everyone has a broader, more inclusive relevance tent. That’s because we naturally project into and empathise with people who do not look like us or live like us. Why should advertising be any different? To what extent is relevance driven by user imagery? Or by a brand or a performance promise?
  • Assumption 2: Consumers have fixed views on what and who they find aspirational, and advertising must faithfully reflect that ideal to be aspirational. If you consider your brand to be aspirational, do you know what drives aspirational consumer imagery? A decade ago, an aspirational consumer might well have been defined in physical and individualistic terms – younger, better looking, more stylish, more material wealth etc. These days, we are seeing aspiration reverting from Western-inspired individualism and being increasingly defined in relational terms, i.e. how do people relate to others, their generosity of spirit, setting an example to others, kindness to the vulnerable, the company they keep, etc. This taps into the collectivist culture of most Asian cultures, where diversity and inclusion have been a more natural instinct.

Check your assumptions as to whether casting an older person or a disabled person would really deter your audience or dilute the power of the advertising. Women drink beer and drive sports cars: do you really think men would feel alienated if they saw women featured in advertising in those categories? 

Representation matters more than casting

Token casting in advertising is not sufficient. Simply featuring an under-represented part of the community is not enough – it matters how they are represented and portrayed. Unicef research shows that women are now featured in 50% of advertising but their portrayal remains problematic, stereotyped and sexualised in many cases. Kantar’s study showed that just featuring under-represented groups has no impact on advertising success but featuring under-represented groups in a positive way has highly significant positive effect on advertising success.  

Telling interesting and surprising stories featuring under-represented populations in ways that break stereotypes delivers many upsides – it broadens relevance, delivers more novelty and portrays your brand as more contemporary. 

Embed inclusivity into the creative process via the talent you select

Agencies and marketing teams should already be well on the way to delivering a fairer, more equitable environment for all sections of the population, for its own sake. 

It also makes the creative work better. 

Authenticity is critical and insensitive inauthentic portrayal will backfire. 

The most effective way to embed inclusivity is to hire and commission the very best talent from those groups you wish to represent, who share a lived experience with the audience you are trying to reach and inspire. Many positive examples are emerging in Asia in recent years, for example: 

  • In 2020, Dove, the biggest chocolate brand in China, aimed at young women, launched a major brand campaign to reinvigorate the brand and redefine the role of pleasure for a new generation of female consumers. The campaign “Put Pleasure First” was based on the insight that women tend to deprioritise what they love to do, in the face of what they need to do. The campaign was centred on a 10-minute short film, “The Endless Fun Fair”, which was not only directed by rising star and female film director Yang Mingming, it was produced by an all-female crew consisting of outstanding female film professionals. Because who can better exemplify the spirit of putting pleasure first, despite challenges and stereotypes, than women in the film industry that is dominated by men?
  • Unilever and their agencies have been driving their Unstereotype Agenda, both in front and behind the camera, paving the way for the traditionally male-dominated industry to embrace more female talent. Earlier this year, their Asia-centred global beauty brand, LUX, proudly announced that nine out of 10 of its film directors are female or female identifying.


  1. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/13/archives/a-friedman-doctrine-the-social-responsibility-of-business-is-to.html
  2. https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/why-business-business-must-be-solve-planets-problems-not-create-them
  3. https://www.brandpie.com/thinking/ceo-purpose-report
  4. https://www.fastcompany.com/90653445/the-biggest-branding-mistake-too-many-companies-make
  5. https://juniperpublishers.com/ijesnr/IJESNR.MS.ID.556206.php
  6. https://www.creativereview.co.uk/purpose-wins-who-loses/
  7. https://www.campaignasia.com/article/carnival-of-hypocrisy-brands-blm-and-taxes/461476
  8. https://www.kantar.com/inspiration/advertising-media/understand-the-power-of-inclusivity-in-advertising
  9. https://www.unicef.org/rosa/reports/gender-bias-inclusion-advertising-india
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB_pkR4MDWE&list=PLCRRvAikTSHlUST-JDomewZEmHUyA9B08
  11. https://campaignbriefasia.com/2021/06/02/unilevers-lux-beauty-brand-achieves-90-female-representation-for-its-film-directors/

About the author

Andy Wilson has lived and worked in Asia for over 20 years. He is the Head of Strategy for BBDO Asia, leading planners across the region and developing innovative and effective business and marketing strategies for clients, including several high profile projects in the purpose and ESG space.