A judge on the inaugural panel for Best Use of Brand Purpose at the 2017 WARC Awards, Laurence Green writes that brand purpose is alive and well and "busy restoring the broken link between business and society."

Self-congratulatory as marketing awards may appear at their prize-giving jamborees, the judging that precedes the jolly is typically conducted with due earnestness. Judges take their responsibilities seriously: not just to honour the efforts of the entrants, but because they are aware that their choices (and their rationale for those choices) help to set the future tramlines of our business.

That responsibility weighs even more heavily when judging the inaugural session of any new awards scheme, which is inevitably still in beta mode, and when the topic at hand is socially as well as commercially charged. And so it proved for my peers and I as judges of the Brand Purpose category of the first ever WARC Awards.

In these febrile times, ‘purpose’ has enjoyed something of a rollercoaster ride: its initial, explosive trajectory as the strategic soundbite de nos jours was soon tempered by scepticism, perhaps helpfully so?

That first, excitable wave was powered by the inspiring example of Unilever and others – businesses and brands committing to (and in many cases re-discovering) their social mission – and underpinned by the thought leadership of charismatic commentators like Simon Sinek. The inevitable counter-wave was partly rooted in the presentation of purpose as some kind of commercial panacea and/or its trivialisation as a creative awards-pleaser.

Peak purpose?

“It’s quite possible that 2016 marked peak purpose”, Saatchi and Saatchi’s UK Chairman Richard Huntington suggested in March 2017, just as WARC was introducing this category to help set the tramlines for purpose best practice as a patient and serious long-term undertaking. More specifically, according to WARC’s guidance to entrants, it noted the example of the ‘Stengel 50’: to sort the deep, organisation-wide commitment from the shallow; and to sift the enduring strategic platforms from more episodic creative showboating. Or, in Richard Huntington’s words, “something that a business sees as central to its future and not a set of pleasant words that burnish its present.”

In that spirit, the easiest papers for the judges to set to one side were those that failed to evidence that deeper commitment to purpose. However well-intended they may have been, one-off campaigns and activations untethered to an ongoing social mission at ‘enterprise level’ were not the droids we were looking for. Our goal was to reward the strategic offspring of brand purpose rather than its creative orphans.

Business and social outcomes

And so to the more finely calibrated conversations around the papers that flowed from a truer, higher order version of ‘purpose’. Here, our conversations crystallised around whether the authors could evidence genuinely improved business outcomes on the one hand and tangible social impact on the other.

Taking each in turn, we were inevitably drawn to those case studies that went beyond the intermediate ‘comms’ measures of reach, awareness, purchase intent, of shares and likes. We wanted to see sales gains, share swings and ideally profit returns that would not have materialised otherwise. The papers that demonstrated this crept to the top of the pile, if only because the advocates of purpose need to make an ongoing commercial case in the boardroom, not just the moral case in the corridor.

To our surprise, very few papers evidenced the internal effects of brand purpose: on morale, retention and recruitment. Not only do we know these effects to be strong (witness Unilever’s popularity as an employer brand) but we also know that they crystallise quickly, typically well ahead of sales: if only because the company has been ‘briefed’ well in advance of the consumer. An obvious opportunity for 2018’s authors!

It would be fair to say that social impact was also variably reported. There was plenty of ‘near in’ evidence of monies raised, lives touched and ‘conversations started’ but less of the ‘farther out’ statistics you might hope to see as the broader, more emphatic social return on purpose investment. As WARC’s Lucy Aitken has written separately, “how many men are now doing more domestic chores in India as a result of (Ariel’s) Share The Load? To what extent has Kotex helped smash the taboos around periods? This is where it will get really interesting.”

Sharpening best practice

The winners were drawn from the relatively small batch of papers that tethered campaign activity to company purpose and boasted hard effects in the real world: commercial and social.

The 2018 Awards will further cement ‘what good looks like’, with the emphasis on Effective Use of Brand Purpose. Guidance to entrants states that “judges will want to see evidence that brands are integrating purpose into their marketing and their wider enterprise... of how a purpose-led approach is producing a tangible return… and has also had some societal benefit too.”

This year’s special awards speak to the further sharpening of best practice in this area. The ‘Evaluation’ and ‘Employee Engagement’ prizes hopefully speak for themselves given the above context; the ‘Smart Spender’ special award is specifically designed to reward those smaller brands and businesses profiting from purpose, not just the consumer goods giants with the resource and footprint to drive change.

We congratulate the 2017 inaugural winners and look forward to further evidence that – far from ‘peaking’ – brand purpose is alive and well, and busy restoring the broken bond between business and society.

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.