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Is Purpose-Led Marketing a Growth Killer? [Rose-Colored Glasses]

Are brands sacrificing company growth by trying too hard to do good in the world?

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble (P&G), raised that question at the recent VivaTech conference.

An article in the Drum last week reported some of Marc’s comments, including this: “Some companies are over-leveraging purpose marketing at the expense of brand growth.”

As evidence, the article points to an open letter from a Unilever investor who said the company had become “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”

But Marc’s full remarks contain more nuance (the entire 20-minute talk is worth a watch). He made clear that P&G sees growth (meaning business growth) and good (meaning doing good things in the world) as a “virtuous circle.” They balance each other.

I agree.

P&G sees “brands and business being a force for growth and a force for good,” Marc said. But, he added, “the order matters.”

That’s where I disagree.

@ProcterGamble sees “business being a force for growth and a force for good,” with growth coming first. @Robert_Rose (partly) disagrees. #VivaTech Share on X

Good is not the opposite of growth

Saying that companies have “over-leveraged” purpose-driven content or that they must “course correct” to drive growth in challenging times sets the expectation that good and growth exist at opposite ends of the marketing strategy spectrum.

That’s not true.

You’ll find many companies that have done a bad job with purpose-led brand initiatives. But their lack of success doesn’t mean purpose-led marketing can’t lead to growth. It just means their initiatives were ill-conceived.

You also can find companies that have done a bad job of growth marketing. That doesn’t mean focusing on brand stories that highlight usefulness to the planet or other good causes won’t help them differentiate and grow.

Growth is a focus of a company’s strategy for success. The approach depends on the object of that growth. Profitability? Revenue? Market share? Each requires a different choice from the spectrum of brand and marketing plans.

Good, on the other hand, is both a business purpose/mission and a differentiator for the growth strategy. It’s a prime ingredient infused into a marketing and content strategy, no matter what part of the growth spectrum the business pursues.

Doing one thing poorly isn’t an argument for rebalancing to the other.

Some companies struggle with purpose-led brand initiatives, but that doesn’t mean purpose marketing can’t lead to growth, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

The why matters

Communicating a differentiated brand purpose and the practice of content marketing are distinct but intricately related. For instance, in many organizations, the same brand content team might work on sustainability content and on thought leadership and educational content.

And some tactical content marketing plans rely heavily on a clear “brand purpose” story that expresses itself as a content platform. Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials publication is a perfect example.

Health Essentials started as a platform for good – a way to show that the Cleveland Clinic brand stood for more than making money. It met that goal and became a trusted source for health information. In the past few years, it’s also become a revenue generator and a platform for growth.

Content marketing and growth marketing aren’t things to be balanced like weights on a barbell.

A marketing leader for a technology company recently told me they planned to cut back on thought leadership and educational content because of revenue growth challenges last quarter. Instead, they’ll focus more on paid media advertising for direct sales.

That may or may not be the right decision. But the thought leadership program performed flawlessly, generating subscribers and high-level leads.

I asked why the team had made that decision. The company looked at the data and found that leads generated through thought leadership take longer to close. So, they decided to move money and resources to the low-end of the funnel, hoping to accelerate growth.

But the tech company’s plan amounts to moving one weight from one side of the barbell to the other, thinking that will make it easier to lift.

That’s not a marketing strategy. That’s insanity.

A roadmap for balancing the virtuous circle

There are plenty of counterarguments to the idea that focusing on “good” over “growth” is the root cause of poor financial performance.

For example, sporting goods co-op REI, a brand that leads through content and brand purpose, posted a 36% increase in revenue according to the 2021 financials it released in April. Likewise, Monster Beverage earned record first quarter 2022 net sales of $1.5 billion while leaning heavily into content marketing and much less heavily into direct advertising.

Content marketing (or purpose-driven content) will also shift as an overall part of a marketer’s mix. My recommendations for staying in balance line up almost exactly with the things Marc Pritchard called the “enduring basics:”

  • Knowing what your customer needs
  • Giving customers a superior experience
  • Understanding what you need to do to win today, with an eye toward tomorrow

Let’s explore these ideas (and my slight tweaks to Marc’s advice):

Marc says: Know your consumer needs
Robert says: Know your customer

Sentiments change during any significant market shift (good or bad). In previous economic downturns, we’ve seen how quickly the priority for certain products and services can shift from essential to not necessary.

Understanding your marketing mix means understanding how those shifts in motivation affect your product or service and adjusting the way you deliver your core messages.

Marc says: Give them a superior experience
Robert says: Find efficiency in the process, not the experience

What’s the quickest way to strangle your marketing strategy? Perform a brute-force lift and shift of resources to optimize one part of the journey. You’re almost guaranteed to create a suboptimal experience in another part of the customer journey.

Instead, focus on how to get more out of what you’re doing across every experience. In other words, find the efficiency in your content process.

I’m not suggesting you ignore that big, gaping need at one part of the journey. I am suggesting you approach reallocating investments surgically. Examine everything, then make case-by-case recommendations about where to cut and where to increase spending to deliver those superior experiences.

Marc says: Understand what you need to do today, with an eye to tomorrow
Robert says: Double down on the current emotional engagement

You may be tempted to default to content that touts price or better value during a downturn.

But consider focusing on emotional engagement that’s tied to your brand value. You’ll need to have a finger on the pulse of what content you should produce – and mechanisms to act quickly.

So, yes, talk about discounts if that aligns with your brand purpose. More likely, you’ll need to focus on pivoting purpose-driven efforts to help develop trust in your offering.

For example, I love what Nike recently did with its NikeCraft General Purpose Shoe. The company didn’t position the shoe as cheaper or more expensive (and it’s neither). It positioned it as the “understated do-everything shoe created to work with every possible scenario.”

Growth can be good – and vice versa

It’s easy to misinterpret the lesson in Marc’s interview. In fact, the article I mentioned says this: “P&G’s mantra pre-Covid was that it wanted to be a ‘force for good and a force for growth.’ But in the face of increasing economic pressure, it recently flipped that.”

That framing suggests P&G made the wrong decision by putting good first, and (worse) they’re correcting that mistake now only because of financial pressure.

In his remarks, Marc said, “A force for growth leads to the capability of being more of a force for good.” But I would argue that the opposite is true, too.

You don’t have to choose which is more important or what should come first – both matter. You have to figure out how to do both effectively.

You don’t have to choose whether growth or good is more important. Figure out how to do both effectively, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

Marc said it perfectly at the end of his talk:

“Think about how you can be useful to others. It’ll make a big difference. And then you can truly be both a force for growth and a force for good.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute