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Getting from functional advertising to brand purpose

By Daniel Langer-Hack, Partner & Chief Strategy Officer, Church + State (

Try walking more than a block in the city of Toronto without seeing a piece of out-of-home advertising from one of our big three National telco providers touting something about what sets their cellular network apart from the competition. Now try to remember which brand is currently making what specific claim, and watch as the red, blue and green copy begin to blur together into an indistinguishable mess of “Canada’s Largest/ Fastest/[Insert Impressive Adjective Here] Network” in your mind.

Those claims themselves change (slightly) each quarter, but in a way that is indiscernible to most consumers. In fact, the so-called product benefits themselves are indiscernible to most people. They’re simply an indication of the dynamic at play in that particular category. I call this “the functional benefit arms race”. It’s a race to the bottom that typically results in some degree of commoditization. And, if we’re lucky, it eventually leads to some form of consumer-friendly disruption down the road. Check out our new podcast, The Coup, if you’re interested in a deep dive on that particular subject matter.

The thing about these types of functional product claims is that, despite marketers clinging to them like a safety blanket, they actually have the opposite effect of making brands more vulnerable. Beneath the veneer of marketer-speak – labels like “product proposition” or “reason to believe” – they, are at their core, simply arguments which are often built on shaky foundations. In fact, attribute-based assertions are, by their nature, begging to be debated or out-done with bigger, better (and perhaps shakier) claims.

Purpose, on the other hand, grows business. It does so by linking profit to happy customers. Purpose is intrinsic to what you do and sell. To elevate and differentiate brands, we counsel clients to avoid focusing on simply communicating what they provide and how they provide it, because “what” and “how” are functional descriptors. Instead, focus on why you exist and why your target needs you. “Why” is rooted in purpose.

A general truth about consumer behaviour is that marketers tend to rely far too much on demographics to understand their target, and far too little on uncovering motivations and emotions.

Brands also tend to give disproportionate weight to what people say in research, as opposed to analyzing the truths evident in their behaviours. Thanks to our always-expanding digital footprints, and personal data serving as an indirect currency for access to today’s content, there’s more data available about people’s behaviour than ever before.

This means that we don’t always need to ask consumers what they would like to see in awkward focus group settings, because we already have the answer to those questions. Their actions speak louder than their words ever could. This data, which is at the heart of modern behavioural economics, can help us uncover insights, or validate a hypothesis, or gut intuition that we might already have.

Here’s the deal: consumers buy brands that strengthen their beliefs in themselves; provide a sense of comfort; simplify complex decision- making; and reinforce the order they see in their world. Humans don’t live for rationale. Quite the opposite, we buy things based on emotion and then post-rationalize later. Emotions push us toward action. In response,, humans are compelled to do something. As a brand, if you can make your target feel something, there’s a much better chance they will do something – what feels right, will become right.

With that in mind, how can we hope to create a message that will resonate with them and change their behaviour, if we don’t take the time to understand their values and beliefs first? Purpose is the missing link that helps align brand values and personal values.

You don’t need to look very hard to find examples of a purpose-driven strategy at the heart of a celebrated brand success story — from Nike, to Dove, to Old Spice. While most beer brands spent all their budget and efforts on TV shoots trying to get the same old “pour” just right, Dos Equis instead chose to focus on a higher-order brand purpose: being a more interesting person. The result helped make the brand the fastest growing import beer brand in America.

Simply put, if you want to cut through the noise and win the battle for time, you have to fundamentally believe in something that goes beyond your product proposition. Purpose helps you build conviction a world where attention and trust are becoming increasingly scarce. Purpose helps you rise above the functional benefit arms race and create a meaningful connection with your consumers. It’s hard to argue with that.

Church + State is a member of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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