CANNES: Brands and agencies have become over-excited at the idea of brand purpose as a way to differentiate, several leading industry figures have argued.

Speaking at a WARC session in Cannes, Paul Bainsfair of the IPA, described Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad as the “nadir” of this approach, adding that it was “a perfect example of how to get it wrong and [it] has backfired really badly on the company”.

He noted that the idea of a company doing good was not actually new – Quaker-owned companies were taking that approach back in the Victorian era.

“It’s crazy to say it’s not a good thing to be conscious of your role in society,” he said. “I’d just be sceptical about pinning all of your communications and brand messaging around that.” (For more details, read WARC’s exclusive report: Is purpose all it’s cracked up to be?)

While the Quakers’ – consistent – actions were rooted in their religious beliefs, modern day brands often have a very cynical approach to the notion of purpose, picking things up and dropping them as suits the needs of the moment.

“No one wants to admit it, but it has become fashionable to have a social message or cause at the core of your communication,” agreed David Kolbusz, Chief Creative Officer of Droga5 London.

But, he continued, while brand purpose can be a good thing, “it doesn’t have to be the essence of what your brand is projecting” – a point he illustrated with two different ads for Secret deodorant, one of which featured a funny incident between a heterosexual couple, the other an “important” one featuring the bathroom trials of a transgender woman.

“Everyone errs on the side of the transgender commercial as being the thing that kind of defines this campaign,” he said. “What hurts me is the fact that things that are actually, legitimately better aren’t being recognised for being better, they’re playing second fiddle.”

The suggestion is that awards juries are partly to blame as, faced with a huge volume of entries, they grasp at creative ideas rather than the best campaigns.

If you do identify a problem, Bainsfair said, “you’ve got to do something about it if people are going to believe you, and it’s got to be authentic to you, your role, your brand, your product”.

Data sourced from WARC