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Breaching the fourth wall of brands

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In the last decade the idea of brand purpose has gained traction. We have moved from ‘fortress brands’ broadcasting their message with the expectation that people would listen and believe. Instead social media has breached the fourth wall – so beloved of playwrights, but avoided by film makers intent on retaining the myth of film until Frank Underwood in House of Cards spoke to us directly, drawing us into his seedy world – and enabled people to engage, influence and to take some control of the brand’s reputation.

What other response could there be from brands when the fourth wall is breached, but to become transparent and to declare their higher purpose.

Unilever stands head and shoulders (apologies to P&G who own that brand) above most global brand owners in developing a global brand purpose and followed through to the individual brand level. The corporate level promise is suitably high level: “to make sustainable living commonplace”. And, that filters through the brands to other social mission based promises such as Dove’s self esteem project and campaign for real beauty.

The fact that a huge multi national throws its weight behind purpose driven marketing suggests that there is something in it. And the research data appears to supports that. The best known treatise on this topic is Jim Stengel’s work* looking at 50 companies who show above average growth (if you had invested in them your return would have been 400% better than the S&P) all of which are shown to be ‘ideals based’, that is they have a higher order prupose.

The clinical forensic eye of Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Bass institute has reviewed this work and found it wanting, however. He believes that the researchers have been seduced by the ‘halo affect’ in their selection of companies and their evaluation of their ideals. He argues that there are many other companies who have adopted a brand purpose that have not fared well and he also quotes the demise of Blackberry and HP both of which appear in Stengel’s top 50 as evidence that adopting a brand purpose is no guarantee of growth.

In summary then, the evidence that brands with a purpose are more successful is inconclusive. But the fact that some brands with purpose have over performed is irrefutable.

What is also irrefutable is that brands are intangible. Typically we refer to ‘mental constructs’ to differentiate the brand in our imagination from the tangible outputs of manufacturing, large numbers of employees designing and delivering services, distribution logistics and so on. So if that is the case, where does brand purpose fit – is it a purely fictional conceit that is a component of the ‘mental construct’ of the brand or does it need to have a tangible expression? I believe that it has to be both.

Brand purpose fits the zeitgeist of the current generation’s view that brands are what they do. An example of this is work we have done with Millennials for whom Apple is one of their favourite brands – but unlike the previous generation not because of its design, its badge status, its general cool – but because it helps synchronise their lives. They value Apple for what it does i.e. enables them to manage and synchronise their desire to fulfil the adage that “you only live once” so you’d better cram as much as you can into every day.

So for purpose to have authenticity it needs to translate into how the brand behaves – crucially not what it says, but what it does. For example, Unilever made big changes in their supply chain for palm oil, so that their stated purpose around sustainability had integrity, despite the fact that many of their customers have scant knowledge about the palm oil issue or its previous use in Unilever brands.

Social media has created greater transparency but also breaching the fourth wall has had the effect of creating a dialogue around how brands behave. Frank Underwood tells the audience “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties”. He opens his heart and soul, if he had one, and as a result we know how to expect him to behave and he never disappoints on the “casualties” body count.

As more marketers adopt purpose driven marketing we are seeing a continuum from authentic corporate purpose to brands adopting a patina of purpose as an external facing story for their communications. Overtly or blatantly disingenuous and cynical practices are ‘outed’ pretty quickly and terms such as greenwashing and health washing have entered common parlance. These are exceptional cases and few companies engage in intentional dishonesty but nor that doesn’t mean that they are getting it right.

Research needs to be smart enough to diagnose whether the brand’s purpose has clarity and authenticity with customers. Just as research has had to develop better ways of assessing top of mind and emotionally based brand associations (through fast response implicit tests and emotional measures) so to we need to develop ways of evaluating whether the brand’s purpose is believed and being woven into the beliefs that constitute the mental construct and mythology of the brand. Is the purpose understood and clear? Is it believable and does it feel authentic? What does that mean to people in regard to how the brand will behave?

Asking direct questions or administering attitude batteries is not the way to do this. We need to assess authenticity obliquely. Asking about the brand’s actual and expected behaviour is a more relevant and useful diagnostic tool. There are myriad ways to tackle this in both a qualitative or quantitative work and also social media scraping. Creative methods include using scenarios to gauge the expected behaviour of the brand; using predictive markets and questioning techniques to assess future behaviour, and social media monitoring using sophisticated text analysis and sentiment analysis are just a few examples.

So the jury may still be out on whether brands with a purpose are more successful long term, but what is clear is that purpose cannot be an entirely marketing created construct. To deliver behaviour consistent with the purpose – and it is essential that behaviour is consistent with the purpose – it has to be adopted at a companywide level, championed by the C suite and embedded in the company culture. Only then will the breach in the fourth wall be an authentic dialogue between the brand and its customers.

Colleen Ryan, head of strategy, TRA NZ

 

* Jim Stengel: Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies

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