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.

Non-WARC subscribers can read this series in its entirety by accessing the articles via the landing page.

Why it matters

Values, profit and partnership are three forces of purpose when brands activate around purpose but there are many different routes and each client’s route to good growth is unique, with as many paths to good growth as there are clients.


  • Purpose is innate for businesses that embrace the opportunity to make their values more apparent in how they market, which is often described as marketing with purpose.
  • There is strong evidence from portfolio businesses that the brands under their umbrella which activate around purpose are also the brands that are the most profitable.
  • A brand with purpose can be a rallying point to attract and retain internal talent and attention, as well as being a powerful catalyst for collaboration with external partners.

Brands have been activating around societal issues for years and in some cases, they have made thinking in this area central to their purpose as a brand. The central hypothesis of the WARC Purpose Inc series is that profitability need not be sacrificed when brands consider the wider societal effects of their communications activity. The Purpose Inc hypothesis is certainly supported by our experience in Mindshare APAC. 

In this paper, we are exploring four different approaches with purpose at the heart of their thinking to look at what makes them unique, what ties them together and what lessons can be learned. For each example, we have looked at the three Ps of Purpose, Profitability and Principles to understand the approach to purpose, the business effect and what general lessons we can derive from the work.

The purpose of purpose

There are three primary reasons that brands activate around purpose. The first is rooted in their values, the second is driven by their bottom line and the third relates to their teams and the brands and businesses with which they collaborate, in order to succeed.

  • Values – The boundary between CSR and marketing has blurred or even been erased for some organisations. There are many businesses that make their values central to everything they do and therefore choose to express those values in how they communicate and how they invest their media dollars. More businesses are embracing the opportunity to make their values more apparent in how they market and that is often described as marketing with purpose. For these brands and businesses, purpose is innate.
  • Profit – There is strong evidence from portfolio businesses like Unilever and others that the brands within their portfolio which activate around purpose are also the brands that perform best. We all understand that most consumers don’t really care about most brands but many consumers care enough about some issues to pay a bit more attention when brands are active in those areas. The effect of that extra attention at scale makes a difference over time.
  • Partnership – We are in a world where unilateral success is increasingly rare. Brands and businesses need agency partners, technology partners and collaboration partners in order to thrive. A brand with purpose can be a rallying point to attract and retain internal talent and attention, and also a powerful catalyst for collaboration with external partners.

We see elements of all three of these forces of purpose at play in the cases we’ve examined but what is immediately clear is that there are as many different routes to profitability when activating around purpose as there are in any aspect of the modern media world. Our cases show a variety of approaches that is to be expected in a region as diverse as ours. If there is a common factor, we’re defining it as “ecosystem health” in the broadest possible terms but each client’s route to “good growth” is unique to them. There are as many paths to good growth as there are clients.

Example 1: Lifebuoy purpose

Lifebuoy in India is one of the clearest possible examples of a brand that has embraced purpose consistently over time and remained committed to that purpose. Lifebuoy’s purpose in India is to empower people to safeguard themselves against infectious disease, especially in rural areas. One of the reasons for Lifebuoy’s success is that purpose of the brand is intrinsically linked to the product itself. Lifebuoy has elevated its purpose beyond basic cleanliness and into health and hygiene, and the work that Lifebuoy has done in media in India is a testament to that higher purpose.

Lifebuoy in India has won multiple awards in recent years for work that used big data in real time to activate infection alert campaigns across rural India. The Adaptive Data Lighthouse launched in two states and then expanded to eight states, minimising infection and saving lives at scale in poorer communities. The strategy required deep cooperation with telco providers to provide alert messaging to feature phone users in near real time. The use of feature phone messaging in such a relevant context resulted in 98% spontaneous recall for Lifebuoy among those who were contacted.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for the Lifebuoy product but the brand rose to the challenge in 2020 and 2021 to launch the world’s largest COVID campaign. Essentially, Lifebuoy took on the role of national public service messenger with a multi-faceted campaign that employed segmented tactics to reach rural India as well as affluent urbanites across 28 states, 4,000-plus cities, 10,000-plus towns and 600,000-plus villages.

Lifebuoy profitability

While the pandemic increased demand for Lifebuoy and other hygiene products, even before COVID, Lifebuoy was demonstrating robust business performance for a brand that makes purpose central to everything that it does. That position of strength was amplified by the pandemic campaign, which saw volume sales increase by 15.6% and brand penetration grow by 4% to a dominant 58.8%.

Lifebuoy principles

The lesson from Lifebuoy seems simple. The purpose of the brand is rooted in the promise of the product, after all. However, there are three other valuable principles that can be observed in operation. The first principle is commitment over time. Lifebuoy has maintained and even deepened its commitment to purpose over the years. The second principle is to go beyond product. Although its purpose is rooted in the product, Lifebuoy has consistently embraced thinking that goes beyond product and into service design, in order to live up to its purpose. The third principle is scale. Lifebuoy’s purpose work is not consigned to niche CSR activity. It shows up in the world and uses its media investment to scale, activate and amplify its purpose.

Example 2: Lux purpose

Lux in China has a different relationship to its purpose than Lifebuoy in India. The Lux brand in China focuses on embracing natural beauty. In 2011, Lux launched a campaign to offer real-world support for the environment with a grass planting project to rejuvenate the physical ecosystem of China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region. The campaign was called “Go Green, Go Lux”.

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Clearly, there is a difference in the connection to purpose for Lux compared to Lifebuoy. For Lifebuoy, purpose is derived from the specific benefit that the consumers themselves get from using the product. For Lux, purpose is at the level of the brand rather than the product and the benefit goes to the physical environment, rather than the consumer. Nevertheless, Lux has activated profitably around this purpose.

Lux profitability

In 2021, Lux reinvigorated the “Go Green, Go Lux” approach and strengthened the product link by introducing an alfalfa ingredient that was grown on the grasslands of Tibet. Lux also brought a range of partners into the campaign. Their sustainability focus drove PR value from official media platforms, like CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency, as it reinforced the Chinese government’s environmental policies and ambitions. Lux also worked with the e-commerce platform to raise donations for replenishing the grasslands and ran a retail incentive to name areas of the grassland in honour of their top-performing retailer partners.

Thanks to “Go Green, Go Lux”, the brand was able to plant more than 10 million square metres of grassland in Tibet, which has the capability to absorb 6,000 tons of CO2. The campaign allowed Lux to increase its grassland coverage by 10%, while substantially lifting sales. 

Lux principles

While the connection between product and purpose was not as direct for Lux as Lifebuoy, the translation to profitability was still strong. The brands shared a common commitment to consistency of purpose as a key principle. Like Lifebuoy, Lux went well beyond the scope of the product but then activated in an area that had very little direct effect on the buyers of the product. The Lux example also demonstrates the value of the ecosystem effect that included retail partners, official media outlets, e-commerce platforms and the China Environmental Protection Foundation.

Example 3: Lays purpose

The Lays example derives its connection to purpose differently again, in that it focused on the short-term effects of COVID-19, which was obviously not a long-term activation area for the brand. The Lays purpose in India arose from a desire to celebrate and protect the frontline workers and unsung heroes who were at risk during the pandemic. Lays focused on the workers like farmers, shopkeepers and truck drivers who were part of their supply chain.

So in the Lays example, there is a direct, logical connection of purpose with the Lays business rather than the brand or the product. Once again, Lays was able to support its chosen area of purpose profitably.

Lays profitability

Lays partnered with the Smile Foundation to raise funds to buy hygiene kits for the farmers, shopkeepers and truck drivers who were keeping India going during the pandemic. Lays launched a campaign around #Heartwork and rallied the nation to support Heartworkers.

Lays put pictures of Heartworkers on special packs and worked with popular singers and celebrities to popularise a Heartwork song as the centre of the campaign. Obviously, Lays itself supported the campaign but the real power of the campaign came from the wider ecosystem of support that Lays was able to rally.

Over 40 other leading brands in India, including Flipkart, Tide, Cadbury, Vistara, Kia Motors, Pizza Hut, Amazon, KFC, Urban Company, Zomato and others joined the campaign and gave it both extended reach and overt endorsement. The campaign allowed the Smile Foundation to deliver over 40,000 hygiene kits to Heartworkers and sales grew 35% across the March-to-June 2020 campaign period, at a time when food distribution was massively disrupted and sales of many food brands suffered.

Lays principles

Lays derived its connection between brand and purpose from a very different source and reacted in the moment, rather than building on a long-term, consistent purpose platform. So while consistency of purpose seems desirable, it is demonstrably not essential. Lays shares with Lux the value of inspiring a wider ecosystem to collaborate with the campaign. Like both Lifebuoy and Lux, Lays went far beyond the product benefit or experience to deliver a societal effect rooted in purpose. Once again, the amplification effect of media was central to Lays’ success, particularly when that effect was supported by other brands that joined or endorsed the campaign.

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Example 4: Designing a media ecosystem for good growth

Our final example looks at how any brand can embrace its purpose by designing a media ecosystem, in this case, one built to tackle market-specific inequalities in societal representation. Traditionally, advertiser media investment goes to the largest and broadest reach partners and publishers, often bypassing smaller publishers who represent a more diverse subset of the community, and certain minority publishers can find themselves excluded by brand safety measures.

In the US, we had found that words like gay, transgender and bisexual are placed higher on exclusion lists than words like shooting, drugs, porn or killing. Another piece of research found that words like BLM, George Floyd and black people were being added to campaign exclusion lists without context. This process resulted in minority groups, the media and journalism that spoke for them being cut off from mainstream advertising spend.

To tackle this, our colleagues in the US established inclusion PMPs which were high quality and brand safe but nurtured a more inclusive ecosystem. We saw parallels with the indigenous communities in the Australian market. In Australia, people of aboriginal descent represent 3.3% of the population but less than 0.3% of advertising is invested in media dedicated to reaching these audiences.

Profitability and good growth

We have created Inclusion PMPs in Australia, a series of private marketplaces intended to help reverse the digital discrimination that has defunded journalism for marginalised groups. When localising the respective PMPs, one fundamental problem we encountered was scale. Scalability is an important driver to ensure that purpose is not pursued at the expense of profitability. As a result, we combined minority audiences that included indigenous, LGBTQIA+, migrant and to a lesser extent, marginalised women.

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The end result is a marketplace that delivers on the inclusion objectives, with scalability and accountability, in turn unlocking profitable performance for advertisers against their specific inclusion KPIs.

Good growth principles

As with the specific client cases we’ve outlined, designing an ecosystem around purpose requires us to add another lens when we think about value. A societally healthy and diverse media ecosystem provides more options for advertisers to understand the balance between investment and quality of audience and campaign performance. As with any media investment, premium diverse environments allow brands to reap rewards in brand health and sentiment, as well as improving the overall purpose impact of their investments.

Summary: Unifying principles and illuminating differences

Even from just these four examples, we can observe some unifying principles and make concrete conclusions that can help brands that are trying to achieve good growth.

  1. Consistency isn’t consistent: We would all logically assume that brands ought to be consistent in their activation around purpose in order for consumers to take action. Consistency was a strong element in the success of Lifebuoy and Lux but the Lays case demonstrates that it is not essential to profitability.
  2. Grounding purpose: All of the cases we examined had a link with purpose but Lifebuoy was at the product level, Lux was at the brand level and Lays was at the business level. This should give great comfort to brands that want to explore their own sense of purpose because the authentic intention to help can be rooted in many different aspects of what they do.
  3. Beyond product: While the strength of the link to product varied across the cases, all of them went beyond product and delivered benefits across a wider ecosystem, whether that was public health, environmental wellbeing or altruistic support for people in need. The best work in this area often included a service design layer.
  4. Partners in purpose: All of the cases that we’ve looked at have partnerships at their core. Partnerships are increasingly important in a fragmented media landscape and purpose can be a strong unifying force to bring partners to the table in support of a brand.
  5. Activation at scale: Amplification by media is part of what breaks purpose work out of the CSR silo and into scaled activation that delivers profitability. All of the cases understood and embraced the need for scale.

About the authors

Rohan has worked in the UK and US, lived in Asia since 2007 and spent 10 years in Shanghai where he ran creative and digital businesses as well as major international clients in a media agency.

He ran the adidas Olympic campaign for Beijing 2008 in China, has consistently won multiple international awards and has extensive experience working with youth brands, adidas, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Mondelez, Perfetti Van Melle and others.

At Mindshare, his remit is to work with clients to find new ways to help them accelerate business growth through media investment in APAC.

Anita leads investment for Mindshare APAC and spent over 18 years within media agencies building an integrated understanding of all media, including digital and traditional channels, and a background that fuses leadership, strategic planning, investment and operations.

Her passions follow the digital evolution of the industry with active involvement in the SEA IAB and a drive for equality, being a founding partner of the Campaign Asia Women Leading Change program.