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Study Shows Purpose-Driven Ads Fall Short in Gaining, Holding Attention; New Approaches Needed

Joint research by GfK and the Goodvertising Agency reveals value of 'transformational campaigns that empower consumers, rather than those that tout product attributes.

At a time when so many companies are rushing to claim sustainability, social justice and other causes as core to their brands, discussions about the effectiveness of these campaigns have been largely absent. With millions of ad dollars being spent to define and promote the ‘purposes’ of brands, what are the real outcomes?

The first findings from The Purpose Impact Monitor — a new, ongoing study developed by market research firm GfK in association with the Goodvertising Agency — show that brand purpose ads generally underperform mainstream ads* when it comes to grabbing and holding viewers’ attention. (See Table 1.)

While three-quarters of generic ads were able to capture attention, the proportion dropped to two-thirds for purpose ads. And while more than half of mainstream ads kept viewers engaged, the figure was 11 points lower for purpose creatives.

The study also compared two types of purpose creatives:

The latter category was identified and named by Goodvertising’s Thomas Kolster, a leader in innovative approaches to purpose-driven marketing, in his 2020 book, The Hero Trap; he discussed the findings in more depth earlier this month at Brand-Led Culture Change.

“As more and more companies are joining the much-needed change, we have to ask ourselves, how do we motivate and inspire millions of people to take part in the change? How do we build brand long-lasting, authentic brands?” Kolster said. “This research hints at a much-needed change in how brands communicate and inspire people moving from a navel-gazing value crusade to inspiring people to do their part.”

The new research showed that transformational ads performed best when it came to delivering a clear message. Nearly half (48 percent) of transformational ad viewers reported that the message was clear, compared to just one-third (33 percent) for mainstream ads and 43 percent for traditional purpose spots.

Using its proprietary Ad Fit Optimizer (AFO) ad-testing solution (similar in principal to SB Brands for Good’s Ad Sustainability Awareness Platform [ASAP] — which measures an ad’s ability to drive consumer action against the Nine Most Impactful Sustainable Behaviors, as well as its impact on overall brand favorability), GfK surveyed 2,408 respondents and measured 20 advertisements in March 2022, divided equally between traditional purpose branding and transformational branding ads.

When it came to branding metrics — such as recall — the purpose ads overall were on par with mainstream ads. (See Table 3.) But traditional purpose ads bested transformational ones significantly in this area — most likely because the traditional ads were more aggressive about promoting the brands themselves within the spots. Transformational ads, by definition, downplay the brand and make consumers the heroes, which might cause a deficit when looking at common brand markers.

“Purpose marketing represents billion-dollar investment for brands — so these campaigns need to meet high standards,” observed Eric Villain, Managing Director of Marketing Effectiveness at GfK North America. “While branding cues are somewhat more frequent in traditional purpose ads, we found that those creatives underperform on key metrics — suggesting that new approaches may be needed. Our hypothesis is that the very definition of a transformative approach may take viewers more time and viewings to understand how they, along with the brand, can be part of the story. Because viewers are more accustomed to messages in traditional purpose ads, those are easier to grasp.”

One telling contrast can be seen in purpose spots from Dove (Reverse Selfie) and Chipotle (Can a Burrito Change the World?). The former takes a transformational approach, showing what it takes to push back on the pressure girls feel to look perfect on social media; while Chipotle’s is a classic purpose spot focusing on the product itself. While diagnostics for the two were similar in some ways, Dove scored significantly higher on agreement with key attitudinal statements such as “inspires me to be part of the change.”

“I’ve been in the purpose space for more than a decade,” Kolster said, “and there’s no doubt it is increasingly difficult to cut through with a classic purpose angle — ‘We care!’ It’s time brands stop pitching themselves as the heroes and instead turn people into the heroes. When brands help people become healthier or ‘greener,’ consumers can feel the difference; it is not just another grandiose brand claim.”

* Mainstream ads = Top 40% of creatives in hook/hold performance

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