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Should brands try to change the world? How to get it right (and avoid a Pepsi backlash)

The "purpose" of a brand is an obvious concept to the average person: washing powders clean clothes, conditioner makes hair soft and a car gets someone from A to B.

But having a higher reason for being could be what makes one brand get picked over another. Ariel, for example, ran an advertising campaign in India encouraging male partners to do their fair share of household chores, resulting in more than 1.5 million men pledging to "share the load". Having this mission helped Ariel increase sales by value and volume in the country by more than 100 percent.

The campaign also contributed to parent company Procter & Gamble topping a U.S. ranking of the ads that had the most business impact, by research company WARC.

Having a mission to change society in some way has become somewhat fashionable in 2017. This year has seen Airbnb pledge free housing for refugees in the U.S., building supplies company 84 Lumber show a mother and daughter travelling to the U.S. from a Spanish-speaking country, arriving through doors in a huge border wall, and Audi spend an estimated $10.5 million on an ad campaigning for equality between men and women.

Using marketing to promote a benefit to society may encourage someone to buy, but get communication wrong and brands risk the kind of backlash that Pepsi saw when it ran an ad showing model Kendall Jenner handing a cop a can of soda during a demonstration. Pepsi pulled the ad and apologized, saying it was "trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding."

Tamara Ingram, chief executive of advertising agency JWT, warned that trying to make a point about society won't work for every business.

"Not all brands deserve a movement. It may not be worthy of changing society. Sometimes we get a bit fashionable about the role that a brand can play," she said, speaking at an event held by consultancy Oystercatchers in London last week.

"If movement means engagement, involvement, excitement then I'm totally [in support of that]. If every brand has to be politically transformative for the world then I think that is a stage too far."

Philanthropic founders

Societal improvement isn't anything new for some brands. For Elizabeth Fagan, managing director of U.K. pharmacy chain Boots (bought by Walgreens in 2014), having a clear purpose makes it easier to do business. The pharmacy was founded by John Boot in 1849, and his son Jesse continued the company, championing people's right to have a basic standard of healthcare.

"If you are a brand with purpose it makes it much easier to drive a framework for making decisions, whether that's a finance decision, a commercial decision, whether that's a people decision, whether that's a colleague decision," Fagan told the Oystercatchers audience.

"For a brand that's been around that long, you want to hold on to the legacy, but you actually want to create a future that's contemporary. In 1849 people were living until they were 40, in 2017 people are living until they were 90 or 100."

Boots Chemists, England, circa 1935
The Montifraulo Collection | Getty Images
Boots Chemists, England, circa 1935

And it is founders who often help brands find a modern identity, according to Ed Pilkington, marketing and innovation director Europe at drinks business Diageo. Philanthropist Arthur Guinness created his famous stout in 1759 and today the brand's broader purpose is about "championing integrity and people who do extraordinary things," Pilkington explained at the event. Diageo tells the story of Guinness with tours of its Dublin brewery, and it is to open its first brewery in the U.S. in 63 years this fall, in the face of tough competition from craft beers.

But the trick with having a broader purpose is translating that into sales, he added. "Purpose is at the heart of what you do, but you are still in commercial businesses… you have to make it available to someone to go and buy when you've created all the lovely 'top of mind' feeling that people have got [about the brand]. Translate it to purchase basically is what you've got to do."

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