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Purpose Platitudes vs. Brand Activism

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Earlier, I posted about the much-hyped topic of brand “Purpose”, and called on marketers to go beyond platonic statements of intent to embrace full-on activism in pursuit of their brand beliefs.

In this article, we’ll explore two related examples of brand purpose, one done with absolute conviction and good intent and the other with, perhaps, less credible intentions. One brand is quietly and effectively changing the world for the better, the other is creating a storm of noise and excitement, and possibly profits, but is increasingly being called into question for its dubious tactics.

Let’s set the scene… With the world’s attention rightly focussed on removing inequalities for women, many brands saw opportunities to highlight their efforts to support equal rights. Some embraced this wholeheartedly, eradicating pay inequalities, making workplaces suitable for everyone and actively seeking to remove bias in their advertising and communications. Others jumped on short-termism and sought to ride the free publicity wave.

So first, here’s the not-so-good example.

A not-so-good example

Brewdog is a notoriously rebellious brewer based in Aberdeen, Scotland. They make some excellent beers that I’ve enjoyed more often than I should probably admit. Their flagship craft beer is Punk IPA which they describe as a post-modern classic with an anarchic twist. Brewdog founder, James Watt, even wrote a great handbook entitled “Business for Punks”—an excellent, if sometimes over-self-congratulatory, read by the way. With this context in mind, we should perhaps expect Brewdog’s marketing to be a little unconventional, even risky at times.

With the issue of gender equality firmly in the media spotlight, Brewdog decided to create a new beer called Pink IPA, especially for women. It’s the exact same beer as Punk IPA, only the bottle label was pink. My sense is there were very good intentions behind the campaign, with Brewdog promising to donate 20% of proceeds from the sale of Pink IPA and Punk IPA to causes that fight inequality and support women.

They even made a funky video about it:

Pink IPA from BrewDog on Vimeo.

Aside from the fact that there’s already a beer for women (hint: it’s called beer), the inadequacies and shallowness of this approach to brand purpose are easy to see when we scratch beneath the surface of the glossy marketing messages.

Why were donations from the sale of these products only made for four weeks? Why was the campaign landing page removed so soon after the end of the promotion? And why would a brand choose promotional tactics that actually increase gender inequalities?

In one stunt, Brewdog decided to sell Pink IPA in its bars at a 20% discount to “those who identify as women”. The blindingly obvious then happened: a man walked into a bar,… asked for a discount on Pink IPA, was refused, then had to say he identified as a woman so he could to take advantage of the promotion. He then took Brewdog to court for gender discrimination and was awarded £1000 in compensation.

While some may argue that the resulting publicity was worth far more to Brewdog than the £1000 legal penalty, others have rightly questioned how copying and parodying sexism will subvert or weaken it.

More importantly for brand marketers, the message is clear: if you are going to embrace brand purpose, you need more, much more, than a quirky idea and a short-term stunt. You need real conviction, belief, and commitment to your chosen cause. And you won’t give up on it until you have succeeded. That’s Activism over Purpose.

A much better example

The Volvo brand is synonymous with safety. No other car manufacturer has put the issue of protecting and saving lives more at the heart of its business. Its longstanding Vision 2020 statement is distinctly powerful:

Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car

And when the issue of gender inequality hit the headlines, Volvo chose a typically understated, considered and brilliantly pragmatic response.

The Volvo E.V.A. (Equal Vehicles for All) Initiative was created in response to gender inequalities in the car industry. But, instead of offering discounts to women, or shouting loudly about its female-friendly credentials, Volvo stayed true to its principles and rooted its thinking in its core brand purpose: safety.

Data shows that women a more likely to be injured in car crashes, largely because the male-dominated industry has invested more time and effort testing male crash test dummies than those with female anatomy. Volvo recognised this imbalance long ago and since 1995 has used crash test dummies of many shapes and sizes in pursuit of its Vision 2020 ambition.

And now, under the E.V.A. Initiative, Volvo has elected to share a wealth of crash test data with the entire car industry. It has released over 100 research papers, disclosing the scientific evidence of what makes Volvo cars safer than many others. That’s Activism over Purpose.

Volvo made a video too:

In conclusion…

The differences between each brand’s approach to promoting gender equality are startling.

Brewdog chose noisy, brash short-termism, as we have come to expect from the brand. It embraced “Purpose” with wafer-thin intent, creating a snazzy video and maximising its PR exposure in the process. Brewdog stopped shouting about its gender equality beliefs once the campaign was over.

Volvo, on the other hand, chose its “Purpose” with care, staying aligned to its core mission of eliminating the risk of death and serious injuries for car drivers and passengers. It quietly chose activism over publicity, releasing commercially valuable data to other car manufacturers to help them also make a positive difference to the world. Volvo’s E.V.A. Initiative is still a thing, and will likely be around for many years, always closely entwined with its safety mission.

To mangle the well-known phrase:

Brand purpose isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.

Think carefully before your next marketing campaign. Activism always trumps Purpose.