Will brands get back in their boxes?

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There’s been a real backlash lately against brands claiming space in conversations about the world we live in.

Lots of people who work in advertising and marketing would be more comfortable if beers went back to being fizzy, travel agents were about beaches again, and banks just talked about interest rates.

The best-argued and least harrumph-y of these pieces is from Mark Ritson, who argues that marketing is about profit, not purpose. It’s the same argument trotted out by Milton Friedman in 1970 when he argued “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Businesses, Friedman argued, couldn’t have a conscience or responsibility – only people could (as though businesses were abstract entities run by computers, or cats).

This backlash is not really surprising. There are a whole lot of well-paid, important people in advertising and marketing who are finding their worldview seriously shaken. The old rules of marketing, advertising – even business – no longer seem to apply and they’re left wondering what does. It would really suit them if this ‘purpose stuff’ all just went away.

But will it?

Will brands get back in their boxes and start being about ‘whiter than white’ and ‘seven different ways to clean’ and ‘more hops for a cleaner taste’? And, perhaps a more important question – is this the best version of advertising, marketing and business we can hope for?

I think the answer is in Ritson’s article. He thinks marketers have lost the plot:

“I think brands have switched from an overt commercial focus to an abstract, belief-based approach for a number of reasons. First marketing is soft and full of people that don’t even understand gross profit, let alone possess the desire to increase it.

Second, most marketers are incredibly embarrassed to admit that they spend 40 hours a week getting people to consume more of something. That’s achingly uncool and sounds appallingly prosaic. Imagine telling someone at a dinner party in W1 that you work very hard to get people to drink more of your beer each week. That would be a nightmare.”

I think marketers have changed.

Many of the smartest people in the world have woken up to the idea that there’s more to life than selling fizzy liquids. A sense of purpose drives many of the world’s best and brightest marketing graduates. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also drives many of the brands whose future success relies on recruiting them. And, it increasingly looks like it drives the decision-making of many of the people who consume those fizzy liquids (cosmetics, cleaning products, clothes, financial products, etc.)

Businesses are run by people. When those people change, businesses do too. Mark Ritson is absolutely 100% certain, in a way that only a Professor can be, that “marketing is about profit, not purpose”.

I’ve spent lots of my marketing career working with non-profits, so I’m not so sure about that. I am, however, pretty certain about one thing – marketing is about whatever the organisation wants it to be about.

Of course, businesses need profit to survive – and, indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that purpose isn’t a distraction from profit, but can actually drive it. But increasingly, a relentless focus on profit alone is no longer what brands need to hold dearest. Not if they’re going to attract a new generation of staff, customers and stakeholders who, frankly, want more out of life.

Among those businesses, of course, are all the advertising and marketing agencies who make up a thriving, world-leading creative sector. The best of those have never been about profit at the expense of values, creativity or reputation.

So maybe brands, and agencies, and clients, and consumers, will all get back in their boxes.

Maybe.

If not, life’s only going to get more uncomfortable for people who believe marketing can only ever be about profit.