Harjot Singh is Chief Strategy Officer of McCann Europe, and, this year, will judge the purpose category of the WARC Awards 2018. Here he speaks to WARC’s Case Study Editor about what purpose is and why it’s not going anywhere.

What would you say to the many cynics of brand purpose strategies that argue that it is a fad that is falling out of fashion?

If someone is going to default to cynicism as a first response, that’s quite immature. You don’t get to deem the very premise of purpose a failure - after a few mis-steps by brands that you may have otherwise held on a pedestal. We need to understand that brand purpose is complex. Sometimes even the most experienced, intellectually sophisticated, and resourceful companies can get it wrong. We’ve seen that happen to the likes of Unilever and PepsiCo in the recent past. This isn’t an opportunity to jeer and poke fun at them. This just proves that getting it right isn’t as simple as it may appear to the cynic.

In my opinion, when cynics call brand purpose a fad, they’re undermining it, and that proves that they don’t understand it. Fads become obsolete quickly, and I don’t see anything faddish about the practice of brands and companies leading with intention. That’s what brand purpose is and it’s here to stay.

Cynicism around this stems from the reality that many of us are used to thinking a certain way, focusing on what things were like in the past, and so choosing not to challenge ourselves. It’s the outcome of dogma and inertia.

I consider it an opportunity for influencers and platforms like WARC to help us demystify it, prove that it makes commercial sense; is substantive, tangible and enduring vs. something that’s purely ideological.

What examples of brand purpose have particularly impressed you over the years?

Brands have more power than governments to change the world and people expect that of them. Delivering on people’s expectation has always been a business imperative: if people expect you to make a real positive change in the world and be more inclusive, we need to be delivering on those expectations in compelling, and meaningful ways. In order to do this well, brands have to lead with a point of view vs. a point of difference. This is why understanding and appreciating the importance of brand purpose is so important. I feel proud of the work our team do for L’Oréal – only a brand with this kind of ubiquity can be as inclusive. It takes courage, conviction and creativity to establish and lead a narrative that’s informed by a point of view vs. a point of difference.

I know that Google can be polarising to some but they are honest about satisfying the world’s curiosity immediately – it’s a real point of view that not only makes sense with their product offering, but places them in a position of strength to be the best at it.

 Which example of brand purpose that you have worked on has made you the most proud?

Many years ago, when I was still based in North America, I used to work on Kellogg’s Special K and we talked about ‘obtainable victories’ [the ‘Be Victorious’ campaign]. It was a clear point of view that made the product genuinely more compelling. Every woman has her individual pursuit for what she calls a better version of her body, these are diverse, deeply personal goals and victories, so, for instance, whether or not to wear a one or two-piece swimsuit, to wear a sarong or not, skinny jeans or not, black or prints etc. The more we invested in understanding and unpacking this idea, the more I was moved by it because it’s very personal and not prescriptive or clichéd as it was being made out to be. I remember one woman said to me that for her the idea of a victory is to just not wear a jacket in the summer, or not to hold a cushion on her lap because she feels self-conscious. This whole idea of taking a seemingly simple breakfast cereal and tapping into every woman’s pursuit for a better body, and making that an obtainable victory was very compelling for the brand – creatively and commercially.

How difficult is it to measure the impact of brand purpose?

I don’t think it is difficult because it’s too early to determine that. It’s ripe with opportunity because best practices have not yet been cemented so there is still room for pioneering approaches and innovation. The Jim Stengel Index has reoriented the entire community to start thinking of it commercially - I thank him for having done that because it was really timely; it removed that whole ‘nice to have’ element and proved that when done well, leading with purpose can directly and positively impact share price.

The reason that measurement is challenging is because we don’t have enough, sufficiently robust conversations at the beginning of the process to determine success.

We know people buy into a brand before they buy it, so we should be exercising greater rigour in the way we look at the values and ideals that inform the brand’s reason to exist and how every behaviour, every action, every output and every deliver on behalf of the brand corresponds to them and to the values that are meaningful to people.

What advice would you give to entrants thinking of submitting their work to the Effective Use of Brand Purpose category at this year’s WARC Awards?

Don’t make shit up. But tell a good story nonetheless.

Make sure it’s compelling and cohesive in the way it clearly connects the issue, the idea and the impact.

The 2018 WARC Awards, a global search for next-generation effectiveness ideas, are now open for entries until 12 February 2018. 

There are four categories: Effective Innovation, Effective Use of Brand Purpose, Effective Content Strategy and Effective Social Strategy. Like all WARC Awards programmes, entry is free.