After serving on the 2023 Brand Purpose jury for the Global WARC Awards for Effectiveness, Liwa Content Driven’s Rohit Arora explores the lessons brands can learn from the shortlist about making a lasting impact.

Over the last decade, enough has been said about the importance of brand purpose. “A reason why a brand exists beyond making a profit” – was popularised in 2011 by Jim Stengel, former Global Marketing Officer for P&G.

In evaluating the Brand Purpose category of the WARC Awards for Effectiveness 2023, my fellow jurors and I felt an immense sense of responsibility since our choices could potentially set the standards for the upcoming years. This responsibility was further amplified due to the fact that, while all brand purpose awards hold importance, this particular one is closely tied to effectiveness. We understood that our selection of winners could easily convey a wrong message just as much as it could send out the right one.

Throughout the judging process, it became abundantly clear that numerous brands and companies are keen on harnessing the power of brand purpose. However, as we reached the end, the jury was somewhat disappointed to discover that only a few cases truly earned the right and had the credibility to execute a genuine, successful, and effective purpose-driven marketing campaign.

Although there were many shared characteristics and valuable insights derived from the cases that performed well, there were also important lessons to be learned from those that fell short of making a lasting impact.

Here are some of the questions to ponder:

Self-serving vs. selfless

Brands need to ask themselves if their efforts are just driven by self-serving motives or if they’re genuinely committed to selflessness. Purpose-washing, just paying lip service to a cause, can backfire as most consumers today can see through superficiality.

It’s important to navigate the fine line between leveraging purpose as a mere ‘marketing tool’ and genuinely embodying it in all aspects of their actions, values and a sincere desire to make a positive impact.

While achieving crucial business goals such as brand equity, penetration growth, market share, etc. is crucial for brands, it was consistently observed in all the winning cases that not only were they genuinely selfless, but meeting these objectives became a natural by-product.

For instance, Vaseline, true to its brand purpose of “giving everybody healthy skin to live without limits”, addressed the broken journey to skin healing for people of colour. Over a span of three years, they built a comprehensive database and arrived at a solution. In doing so, they improved cultural and brand relevance, drove behaviour change, and achieved their business objectives, even when sales success was not initially the primary focus.

See my skin campaign visual

One-off stunt vs. long-term commitment

Brand purpose is neither a passing trend nor a one-off marketing stunt/campaign. It requires a strategic, long-term commitment. Merely using the marketing function as a means to turn a non-purpose-oriented organisation into a purpose-driven one or using brand purpose solely as an awareness play or as a one-off campaign designed for industry recognition, only fuels consumer cynicism and distrust.

The fact that numerous campaigns with exceptional creative ideas and execution fell short implies that people, much like the jury, resonate and show loyalty to purpose-driven brands and companies, rather than a singular purpose-driven campaign, advertisement or stunt.

True brand purpose goes beyond one-off campaigns; it must be deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA, integrated across product development, supply chains, employee engagement and customer experiences.

For example, Lifebuoy's brand purpose of “saving lives through illness prevention” drove their ‘H-for-Handwashing’ campaign, which transformed into a movement over three years. Governments and NGOs joined in promoting handwashing in early childhood education to future-proof disease outbreaks.

Advertising vs. act-vertising

There has been an overwhelming influx of ‘purpose-advertising’ often diluting important topics such as mental health, gender equity, reduced inequalities, climate action, sustainability and more. Despite a significant number of entries analysed, only six emerged as winners, marking a decline compared to the previous year.

Numerous brands are now focusing on captivating ‘adverts’ that highlight their support for and championing of worthy causes. These campaigns are often accompanied by beautifully crafted creative hooks, brilliant media effectiveness, and skilfully presented case studies. While these efforts are commendable, it is crucial to delve deeper and scrutinise the authenticity of the actions undertaken by these brands. Were these actions substantial and consistent, or were they merely self-serving or momentary stunts? Furthermore, how did the transformative behaviour of these brands catalyse a widespread and enduring change in the attitudes and behaviours of others?

Authentic brand purpose revolves around accountability and genuineness, placing a strong emphasis on ‘brand doing’ rather than merely ‘brand saying’.

For instance, let’s consider Hypo Toilet Cleaner, a Nigerian challenger brand that took real ground-level actions to address pressing sanitation issues. They partnered with the government and mobilised Gen Z volunteers to rescue unsanitary toilets. Their efforts may not have been glamorous or accompanied by beautiful creative hooks, but a simple Google search and a visit to their social media page are enough to authenticate their genuine actions. Elsewhere, Air Wick with its ‘One Square Foot’ initiative, together with people, reseeded 130m square feet of disappearing North American wildflower habitats.

A great creative idea and execution vs. strongly embedding with the brand’s DNA

Today we’re in a landscape where people are fatigued with DEI, sustainability and purpose press releases, social media posts, ad hoc donations, statements pledging to do better and one-off brand campaigns with an element of brand purpose in them.

Distinguishing between CSR and purpose is imperative. It cannot be like “Here’s a specific cause, let’s take it up and make it big”. Similarly, while creative excellence is wholeheartedly welcomed, especially in an era plagued by brand activism burnout and compassion fatigue, it cannot be just that.

Brand purpose is truly embedded in what the brand wants to do over a longer term, permeating throughout the entire organisation. It’s not a tick-box exercise but an ongoing, iterative process that requires a profound understanding of the communities being served, perhaps reinventing new ecosystems or evolving perspectives, attitudes and behaviour.

For example, Stayfree, a feminine hygiene brand in India, undertook the mission of breaking taboos and normalising period conversations by involving men in the dialogue, to build a world where no girl feels embarrassed of periods. Similarly, Dell ventured into creating the world’s first voice banking book, enabling individuals with Motor Neuron Disease (MND) to retain their voices even after losing the ability to speak.

In summary

Undeniably, achieving true effectiveness in brand purpose is a challenging endeavour.

Perhaps, the key is not in searching for a cause, but identifying an issue that deeply aligns with your business, where you’re in a great position to solve it, while also driving a positive bottom line.

Perhaps, brand purpose is not treated as a mere badge to look good, but rather integrated into the very essence of your company with authenticity and unwavering passion.

Perhaps, the goal of a purpose-driven company is not to craft and tell a story, but rather, as a natural outcome, to become one.

Browse the 2023 WARC Awards for Effectiveness: Brand Purpose winners and shortlisted entries here.