Should Festival of Marketing be trying to save the world?

Brand purpose was firmly on the agenda this week – but solving the planet’s problems is a big responsibility

October 6, 2016

If you’ve been spending the last 24 hours dashing between Festival of Marketing stages chugging exotic Guatemalan coffee, interchanged with Carlsberg and vodka in the evening hours, then you probably have a lot of very ambitious ideas floating around your brain right now. Depending on your personality (and your hangover after Groove Armada) you could be patriotically dreaming of how marketers can protect the essence of Britishness, preserve fair play in the world, fix the global economy, take the world’s population towards spiritual nirvana and save the planet.

Alternatively, you could be feeling like a bit like Mister Incredible in the Pixar movie, moaning that all of these things need saving yet again – and why on earth is marketing expected to do it? Haven’t they got politicians for that kind of thing? Or maybe you’re having an attack of doubt – is our industry maybe, just maybe, getting a bit big for its boots?

“From marketing to consumers to mattering to people”

It all started in yesterday’s opening session with Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed. Unilever is a genuine pioneer of purpose-driven brands. Its Dove Real Beauty campaign is the embodiment of a brand proposition that makes a huge difference to how people think and feel – and therefore to their whole quality of life. It’s inspiring and it came about through the way that Unilever “mainstreamed sustainability”, freeing it from the ivory tower where it just provided an excuse for marketing to keep on selling stuff. Keith and Unilever made a decision to “go from marketing to consumers to mattering to people.”

Smart marketers know that this kind of purpose-led marketing is no longer just saintly – it’s commercially savvy and evolutionarily essential. Increasingly, you can’t persuade people to make you a part of their digital lives without it. We can all sign up to brand purpose – but by the evening, the purpose of marketing was getting even more ambitious…

Can marketing save your soul?

Alain de Botton is a philosopher who’s famous for writing about travel – but he’s also a thinker who’s been consulted by several famously progressive brands. He thinks the problem with the world is that we only design products to deal with people’s most basic needs – and then market them as if they’re catering to their higher emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. This can feel like a con. People book a flight and a hotel thinking they’re buying a way to reinvigorate their relationship or find inner peace – and then get frustrated when they just get the flight and the hotel. People buy a bottle of expensive alcohol thinking they’re getting more freedom and excitement in their life – then get depressed when they just end up with a headache.

Alain wants marketers developing propositions that are genuinely based on addressing people’s deeper and spiritual needs – he even described Buddhism and Christianity as brands that already do so. Now this is something new for marketers. We’re not just saving the planet – we might have to save people’s souls as well.

The Woz and the beauty in basic needs

If that sounds all a bit too high-minded then Steve Wozniak, who closed the first day of the festival, was the perfect antidote. The Woz is one of the most inspiring people that I’ve ever heard speak – not because he sets out to be inspiring but because his passion for solving problems is infectious. If we’re honest, Apple’s products have never saved the planet or made people more spiritually whole – but the Woz’s commitment to fulfilling needs in the most complete, seamless and beautiful way possible manages to imbue the brand with a higher purpose. Solving our simple needs can still be beautiful when it’s done with real passion. I loved the story of the Woz waking up in the middle of the night in the jungles of Ecuador recently – because his brain had just solved a problem in the design of the Apple II computer that he launched in 1977. That’s someone who knows what he and his brand are on this earth to do.

The dangers of brands as causes

The problem with saving the world is that it’s often subjective. As economists and politicians have known for years, not everyone will agree with your vision for how it can be a better place. Airbnb, one of the businesses that Alain de Botton works with, has pioneered a form of travel that’s genuinely designed around more fulfilling spiritual experiences – but on the other hand it gets accused of gentrification and breaking up community spirit by orienting neighbourhoods around tourists rather than locals. The more we try to elevate marketing with social and environmental purpose, the more we’ll find ourselves tackling these potentially thorny issues. Being a cause isn’t easy – being a religion isn’t easy either. Are brands really ready for it?

I was pondering these types of things this morning when it struck me that one type of brand already is. There’s one area of marketing that has always involved doing more for people than selling things. There’s one area of marketing where propositions inevitably have a wider impact on people’s lives. That area of marketing isn’t accustomed to making bold claims about how it helps to address people’s deeper spiritual needs – but maybe it should. That area of marketing is B2B.

Why B2B is the natural home of brand purpose

If you buy Dove deodorant and find you don’t like the smell, you just don’t buy it next time. If you buy a pair of trainers and they don’t fit you can take them back. If you buy the wrong solution or strategy for your business, it’s not that simple. Your ability to fulfill your potential, to feel happy and balanced in your life, to support your family, to have freedom to be what you want to be – they all depend on the brands that make promises to you coming through on those promises. Alain de Botton’s and Keith Weed’s visions play out in B2B marketing every day. It already should address our higher needs as human beings; it already should “matter to people.”

More and more B2B marketers get this. We’re seeing brands ready to step up and state their purpose; ready to put their heart on their sleeve and explain passionately why they do what they do. We’re seeing more of them acknowledge that the choice of supplier is a very, very emotional one. We’re seeing more of them talking clearly and confidently about the impact their products have on the lives of not just businesses – but of people within those businesses.

At a time when you can sit in on a Festival of Marketing session honestly debating whether it’s important that content is true or not (that staggered me), it strikes me that not only B2C brands but also plenty of media ones might have something to learn from the best B2B marketers. We have a huge responsibility to those we market to; their livelihoods and their dreams are in our hands. And that’s a great incentive for doing great, honest, beautiful work.