Poor Pepsi, they had to fuck up for a beer to get a shot at our hearts. If you have not seen Heineken’s World’s Apart social experiment campaign, you should; it will certainly not leave you indifferent. In tackling feminism, transgender rights and climate change, Heineken pairs strangers to bond, unbeknownst to both that they had opposite views on one of these social issues. After they seem to bond over talk and activities (thank you, college town social psychology professor), they both watch pre-recorded videos where one person admits their utter disdain for a social issue that the other person strongly supports. Alas, the dilemma of cognitive dissonance (thank you, college town social psychology professor, again)! You’ve just met and bonded with someone only to find out later that they are strongly opposed to something that you really care about. Would you walk out on them or stay and chat about your difference over beer? To their credit, they all elected to share a beer and iron out their differences.
As you would expect—and in no small way thanks to Pepsi’s idiocy—Heineken’s campaign has been very well-received. It has been shared millions of times on social media, and news media have made it a point to add it to their headlines. Heineken was on a frat house party celebration for their huge campaign win until my friend and also marketing’s grumpy grandpa Mark Ritson came along.
In a manner that only Mark knows how, he tore into Heineken, labelling their effort “absolute crap”. His simple explanation is that this campaign will not guarantee Heineken more beer purchase and the money could have been better allocated to profit-generating efforts. Just like his one-man war on the digital craze, Mark uses Heineken’s case to remind us of the other thing he hates: putting obsession with brand purpose over brand profit. Now, I know Mark seems to enjoys his middle finger up, me versus the world, King Kong ain’t got shit on me brilliant performances of intellectual tantrums. But if you will forget that he is British, you will see that his war on everything that colours the dreams of today’s marketers is more than cynical self-righteousness. He always has a point. But on this very issue, I disagree with Mark and here is why.
In Ghana where I come from, every election year, people contesting to become Members of Parliament do not campaign by promising their constituents that they will make better laws and represent their opinions when elected, as expected of an MP. They rather go round promising to build roads, public toilets, schools and hospitals that constitutionally is way outside of an MP’s job description. Along with these promises they give out cash, food, clothes, farming and fishing equipment and sometimes cars to curry votes from their constituents. If you ask any of the politicians, they will tell you it doesn’t make sense but everyone does it. If you don’t do it, you stand no chance of winning the election even if you are Jesus Christ (even he had to do some miracles to earn his celebrity status). Come the next election cycle, the MP is not evaluated on his activities in parliament but on whether he delivered on those promises. Promises have become a hygiene factor in Ghana’s politics.
Promises are to the Ghanaian politician what purpose is to brands: it has become a hygiene factor in branding. Mark is right that profit is the key goal of a business and no amount of pimping that fact will hide the king’s donkey ears. There is no shame in admitting that, and a marketer must bear that in mind at all times; if something doesn’t add to the sales numbers in some shape or form, then don’t waste sleep over it. The question we should be asking here is if truly brand purpose does not add to the bottom line. Mark doesn’t think so. I disagree.
Since the days after World War II, brands have increasingly told stories of how they do more than just meet a functional need. If Karl Marx saw the sort of fetish products have become today, he would rattle in his grave. From the Malboro Man in the 50s to Nike’s Jordan gravity defying ads in the 80s and 90’s to Heineken’s recent campaign, we have seen an escalation of brands telling stories of how their products are more than just what functional jobs they do. Brands differentiated themselves on these so-called symbolic and psychographic attributes.
For a long time, we called this brand positioning, and I sat in Mark Ritson’s Brand Management class at the Melbourne Business School where he preached the good news of brand positioning. Brand purpose is the next phase of that now well-embedded expectation that brands do more than sell products. If brand purpose is useless then brand positioning is useless. Then even corporate social responsibility is crap too. As it stands, neither is.
So like the Ghanaian MP who keeps campaigning on the promise that his job is more than making laws, brands keep telling us that they do more than sell products for a profit. Just like the Ghanaian constituents who now evaluate their MP on that promise made, today’s consumer also judges brands on that promise that they do more than sell products. Brands told us, we believed them and now we hold them to an ever higher standard.
If Brand A does something more in addition to selling products, then competitor Brand B has to outdo them else we will be less pleased. Pepsi shit their pants trying desperately to cancel Coca Cola’s Red campaign. Now that Heineken has had a hit, keep your eye on their competitors. They are planning a comeback. Of course, this is exactly what pisses Mark off but the reality is that the days of marketing conversation being about just profit is long gone. Today, marketing is about profit and purpose, just like the MP’s job in my home country is about making laws and building public toilets. That was not how it was meant to be but that’s what it has become and will be; it is what it is.
Brand purpose—even more than brand positioning—allows brands to tell stories. Of all people, Mark should know that people love stories; he tells them all the time. Stories allow people to suspend reality and dream, imagine, get out of their lives for a moment. A story does not have to be true, it just has to be authentic, and people will believe it. Heineken didn’t even have to admit the possible reality that some people walked out angrily after the revelation and did not sit down for a beer. Our brains had us all rooting for a narrative closure of happily ever after. Hollywood doesn’t exist for no reason.
The very fact that Mark notes that any beer brand could have done this campaign is exactly why it is good for Heineken that they got to do it. Yes, Heineken does not feature prominently in the ad but that is also how they achieved authenticity. They made us believe it is more about the issue than their beer. We believed them and now look, we are talking about Heineken’s ad, not that beer ad. So I disagree with Mark that this campaign will sell Heineken no beers; he doesn’t know that for sure. What we know is that it gave Heineken awareness and brand exposure; that is the necessary first step to brand equity and purchase. This is the same logic that Mark used to support why Ivanka Trump’s brand has benefited from her political involvement, despite the liberals’ brouhaha.
Today, some consumers demand that brands take a stance on social issues. As I have said brands showed us that they could do that and so we are simply holding them to their word. Australian brand Thank You. is entirely built on the brand purpose to end poverty. Even IKEA and ALDI, brands who do not play in the fanciness arena are now finding brand purpose in supporting LGBT rights and environmental protection. No brand wants to be like that very competent guy who run for MP in Ghana but refused to make promises and share freebies and ended up losing to the horribly less competent guy who did exactly that.
The contribution I make here is that brands must look to align their brand purpose stories with their brand positioning. A medley of stories works well if it has the same theme and that theme should be the brand’s positioning. Heineken has long positioned its brand around social engagement and camaraderie. This campaign told a story that fit into it. Similarly, Dove’s positioning on beauty strongly aligns with their purpose-driven campaigns on challenging Western beauty norms. Brand purpose if well used is a lever towards that ultimate goal of profit.
Nothing will substitute better product performance. No other purpose beats profit. But no one said these are the exclusive duties of a brand. Brands must do these and more. Purpose-driven ads are just the next phase of brands being more than selling to make a profit. Soon, brands will be expected to do more than just have purpose-driven campaigns. Somewhere in some corporate boardroom, some marketing person is planning that next move. Check!