Sarah Dawson: Putting purpose and profit in the same wash

Sarah Dawson, managing director at CSM Sport & Entertainment, considers how brands tread the intricate tightrope between consumer demand and company desire for purpose and business need for profit.

Sarah Dawson

I have been part of purpose-led campaigns conjured up over coffee, painted across whiteboards, brought to life in mood boards, unshackled over after-work drinks or agonised over in the wee small hours.

For any campaign I start as devil’s advocate. I play the cynic asking “so what?”, or “why will a consumer care?” and even once “isn’t that just bullshit?” (thankfully the client thought so).

Campaigns need cynics to challenge their foundations. Campaigns with purpose perhaps more than any other. Cynical marketeers can and should look out for quick-fix campaigns aimed only at currying favour, they must ask whether campaigns fit with a brand’s identity, values and direction, and with the culture of the company in which the brand sits. If they don’t, the consumer definitely will. The scrutiny of today’s consumers, most notably the hyper-aware Gen Z, means that brands must be mindful not to appear to have ‘bolted-on’ a purpose or cause. Twitter will quickly remind the world that brands operate to serve a bottom line – any attempt to patch-on purpose in pursuit of profit, but at odds with action, has been termed ‘woke-washing’.

In my role as managing director at CSM, my purpose is to create an environment where our people feel valued, empowered and heard. Somewhere they learn, can challenge and push boundaries. In such environments extraordinary work flourishes which benefits our clients and therefore our business and ultimately (if I am doing my job correctly), the bottom line.

If purpose and profit are in the wash together there is a risk that the colours will run. A case in point is Nike’s Dream Crazier advert – a compelling creative spot, narrated by Serena Williams, championing gender equality by spotlighting the female athletes who are smashing down the stereotypes. It forms part of a wider campaign, which received global acclaim, documenting women at all stages of their careers, from childhood to motherhood.

What came out in the wash? The lasting consumer impression? The story of Alysia Montaño, the United States middle distance runner and National Champion, whose Nike sponsorship, and main source of income, was ‘paused’ on account of becoming a mother: “Nike told me to dream crazy, until I wanted a baby.” Her courage toppled dominoes, as other female athletes – largely anonymously for fear of retribution – painted a picture of a multi-billion-dollar industry which publicly praised women for having families, but privately gave no guarantee of support during pregnancy and early maternity.

In such circumstances it is difficult for an agency to avoid turning all the underwear pink because we are not privy to every red sock, or contractual line item, lurking in our client’s laundry basket.

What we can focus on is ensuring that the marriage of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ is a compelling one. When we respond to a brief, we must practice what we preach. Are we proposing this idea simply to win a Cannes Lion, or to win over a client who we know is a passionate environmental campaigner, or to speak exclusively to the 62 per cent of 18-to-24 year-olds who pay more for brands that support causes that are important to them? What we should always ask instead is; does this partnership, campaign, or strategy fit with the reason the brand exists? Finding a cause that matches the ‘why’ is where the magic lies.

One brand who knows a thing of two about washing is Persil. Its excellent Dirt is Good campaign is now over 10 years old, living as an internal mantra for the brand until being used ATL for the first time in 2016. An emotive, purposeful message encouraging children to go out into nature, to have fun, explore, learn and experience. To get muddy. A simple, effective, long-term strategy with considerable investment, a tangible link to the product, sensible partnerships and a clear commitment from the brand across its communications landscape. The impact? A 2.4-per-cent sales uplift across their UK product range this year upon bringing it life through partnerships that made sense to the consumer. Evidence that continuity, authenticity and acquisition are no strangers.

We all recognise that we need to do more, that consumers not only demand it, but our world needs it. Of course, profit isn’t just financial gain, and a great purpose-led campaign should build equity, trust and make a difference – but it can be precarious. If there is sense in it, consumers can believe in it and if they support the cause and get behind it then it can be rewarding, fulfilling, successful and help drive the bottom line. It just has to, as Simon Sinek says, start with why.


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