Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer, BBDO India, and Santosh Desai, chief executive officer, Future Brands, debated whether brand purpose is responsible or opportunistic during the first edition of The Advertising Club’s ‘Vice and Versa’ series.
The debate was moderated by Agnello Dias, creative chairman, Dentsu Aegis Network.
Dias set the context for the discussion by saying that all good things come of conflict and gave a brief explanation of the topic. He said, “The topic brand purpose being ‘responsible or opportunistic’ - on one hand it’s the thought that brands should stand for something and save the world and stand for a cause. It’s not about young mind’s commute to work. It’s about affecting humanity. It’s time for sole cleansing. On the other hand – it’s thought as an award pandemic. Put your heart and soul in the case study video and win the award. So should brands go for heart strings or purse strings?”
Paul went first. Before going ahead with his points which were about brand purpose being responsible, he stated his love for Santosh Desai.
He then went back to his early days of his career and stated how brand purpose is very personal for him.
“Brand purpose is very personal for me. It’s about where you’re coming from as an individual. In the late 80s I was very impressed by a Nike ad. I still remember every word of the ad. I remember the image too. It says, ‘There are clubs you can’t belong to. Neighborhoods you can’t live in. Schools you can’t get into. But the roads are wide open. We know who they were talking about and the battle is still going on. That inspired me,” said Paul.
He also mentioned ads from India which had a similar effect on him, one from Cadbury Dairy Milk and the other from Bajaj, citing the former liberated the ‘inner child’ while the latter showcased the India ‘we were proud of’.
He added, “It felt great to be in advertising. I thought there was something bigger and these words appealed to me. They were the early brand purpose messages that influenced me. They resonated with me. In April 2000, I made a presentation to the senior creative to Lowe. It had 30 ads and I asked them to pick five their top five. They were ones which had ‘brand purpose’ at their core. Then, I started Brand David – the belief and moral was to find purpose and find new ways for communication. Our first campaign was for CricketTalk. We wanted India to get back to the game after the match fixing scandal. Then we created one for Essar. It won a Pencil at The One Show too. The third campaign was ‘Lage Raho’ for Alpenliebe. All had meaningful messages. We were getting people to buy into something bigger.”
He then spoke about Dove’s ‘real beauty’ and Surf’s ‘dirt is good’ campaign. “These weren’t ads. They were debates Dove changed and challenged the definition of beauty. It was coming from purpose. Daag ache hai (the Indian version of ‘dirt is good’ tapped into a new source of energy. It felt good to be in advertising.”
He went on to speak about the subsequent launch of BBDO in India with the belief of India needing acts not ads. Two of the much awarded campaigns from the agency included Ariel’s ‘share the load’ and Whisper’s ‘touch the pickle’.
Explaining why these campaigns stood out, Paul said, “These campaigns won several awards. They are all about action. They have raised the bar for the brand and for the world. It was a contribution. We were doing this because USP is giving way to UPV (unique point of view). Media is getting fragmented and you need to stand for something. It brings fragmented media. It creates followers. It gives meaning and relevance in today’s complicated life. You move from creating desire to inspire.”
Desai then took on the mantle and explained why he believed brand purpose is opportunistic. While Paul started with showing his love for Desai, the CEO of Future Brands had a warning: ‘I’m afraid what I’m going to say won’t be sweet.’
He said, “At one level brand purpose is a good thing. We’re seeing something good being worked on. Why is this a problem? The problem in my view isn’t that brands are wanting to good things and becoming socially responsible. The articulation is the problem.”
He spoke about how brand purpose in this era is similar to ‘super claims’ brands made in an earlier one.
“Messages like get rid of your wrinkles in 21 days or make your child grow in 21 days – these were dodgy claims brands made. Brand purpose messages are equivalent to those dodgy claims. It can’t be the central purpose to your existence. Brands are portraying that they’re saving the world. They are being asked to be bought for reasons outside of their benefit. This way of looking at is opportunistic,” said Desai.
He added, “It’s dangerous for society and the brands in question. There are brands that have purpose for sure and Tatas would be one of them. They created policies way ahead of their time. They did things they didn’t need to do. There are a handful of brands even today that do that. But there are other brands, some of which you shared have realised that there’s ‘brand purpose’ and tried to be relevant in today’s time. We’re seeing a lot of those brands are doing the exact opposite that they did for decades. They’ve targeted women and have encouraged over consumption.”
He then took on the Ariel’s ‘share the load’ message (which was created by Josy Paul’s BBDO) by stating that brands shouldn’t lecture consumers on how to behave after suddenly having discovered it.
He also attacked Unilever by asking how could they have Dove and Fair and Lovely from the same stable before getting back to Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’.
“The truth is that the same company that talks about ‘Share the Load’ was ranked number seven in terms of maternal policies. The other reason for hypocrisy is that if you believed in this (brand purpose) – you would measure yourself for this. The ecosystem that these companies value is a fundamental contradiction. Perhaps, organisations need to look at something more real – pay our taxes fully, don’t sack people when there’s a slight downslide, don’t make false claims etc. I’m not saying what corporations are doing is bad. This is a question of over extending yourself and dishonesty and therefore it needs to be called up. Brand purpose right now is a mask. And I think we know better. I think we need to look beyond that,” said Desai.
Dias then took to Desai’s points about the same company making different messages and asked him whether companies aren’t allowed to evolve and change their messaging.
Desai’s responded by saying, “I’m saying don’t claim and use it as a marketing peg. In our lives we don’t announce everything good that we do. That’s a marketing idea. In the real world – do it and don’t go on a pedestal to state it. I agree that brands should do more, but this need of saying that buy me because of this – you’re asking for it to be evaluated and asked questions you were not being asked before.”
He added, “Advertising has always been manipulative. You look for pegs that allow you to establish some kind of relationship with a consumer. You are now operating and claiming that you’re raising women’s self-esteem. Then you say something like creating sustainable living. These are not small claims and what is the need for you to step out of what you’re doing. Don’t set yourself up.”
Paul stated that he’s an optimist and believes that this is the start.
“When brands sow the seed, you have to live it. It’s a start. The first step is what makes me an optimist. I’ve seen how cultures have changed because someone sowed a seed in a company. I remember a pitch in which we were so bad and asked the client why does India need one more insurance company when we need an educational company. We left that meeting. The marketing chief called us back and said they loved what we thought. They changed their thinking and created the ‘Great wall of education’ - Aviva. I understand where Santosh is coming from and he also has a brand purpose where he challenges everything. These are the early days of this. It won’t work for everyone and the right guys who live it will shine,” said BBDO India’s CCO and chairman.
Desai’s view on the same was:
“It’s possible to sympathise with the view. Except for the fact that if these are the early days, then it’s about showing little humility. You can’t be seen from day one saving the world, but then say be gentle on us because it’s the start of the movement. You always have the option of not making these claims. These are individual sweet stories. If it was a small movement, with a few people doing it – some getting it right, some getting it wrong, it’s okay. But this is the new industry standard without the responsibility of doing anything about it.”
He added, “Brand purpose has nothing to do with agencies. It’s real if it comes from brand organisations. Advertising is a tiny part of their actions. When it comes from advertising, it’s saying stuff to people. It is the decisions that you make.”
Dias then asked the duo to share their closing statements.
Paul said, “When you string together a lot of the work we do, it’s like a parallel world we’re trying to create. Living in a world that we want to live in. It’s a world where it’s personal. It’s an ‘I wish’ world. That’s what we’re trying to do. There’s a reason for this – it’s not just coming from – here’s a cool new thing. It’s always wanting this. It’s what I’m here for. It’s what drives me.”
Desai said, “In some ways, Josy’s closing underlines the fact that these are sporadic and anecdotal actions. They have their space and importance. Brands are creating something far too large. It’s a much larger question – the idea of brand purpose. It’s hypocritical. Given what brands are doing today and what they can do today during a financing ecosystem that makes certain demands – it’s nothing but a lie. Begin small, don’t make claims in a hurry and you could argue that there could be change. Unfortunately, brands are not waiting for that. They are looking to manipulate human emotions.”