Is it time to put purpose on pause?

Excel and Burger King got The Township's Karen Howe wondering if brands will ease their quest for purpose-driven marketing.

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For several years now, a marketing mantra has dictated that brands seeking a meaningful perch in our minds, hearts and wallets must have a purpose. Pundits like P&G’s Marc Pritchard and Unilever’s Alan Jope opine that it’s not enough to clean our clothes, products like laundry detergent must have a more noble raison d’être; it must help right social wrongs. So coffee is now conserving rainforests, and cereal is saving the honeybees.

Brands are tasked with fixing society. But what happens when we find ourselves in a time warp where we are all living in a state of relentless purpose? We are eclipsed by it daily; everything matters, all the time.

Is it possible we are sick of purpose? For me that explains the wild popularity of the new “Fresh start” Extra Gum commercial. I haven’t seen a reaction like this to an ad in a very long time.

This spot has taken the world by storm, everyone is talking about it – and I don’t mean just the ad world, even friends and family who claim to hate advertising (typing those words was like a stake in my heart) have sent the spot to me, exalting it. Even the ad snobs snarking about executional misses (guilty) have to admit, its timely zaniness found its mark. Wrigley nailed the global zeitgeist with uncanny precision.

The last 14 months have hardly been a laugh a minute. Our lives idled in the long shadow of COVID. We spout the latest stats on global infection rates, ICU beds filled, vaccinations not yet delivered into arms. We seesaw between fretting about health of society versus the economy while riding the rollercoaster of business openings and closings.

With our masks on, we hoard TP and hand sanitizer. WFH long ago lost its TikTok sheen, the day drinking memes are now tired. Numbed by interminable lockdowns, kids and parents are holding it together by a fraying thread.

So what is a brand to do?

The first year of the plague ushered in a period of poignant advertising. Touching ads rallied on behalf of healthcare workers, then frontline workers. We saluted courage, flagged bravery, and fundraised for blood drives. We applauded people for staying home.

We were riddled with purpose, and it was the right thing to do at the right time. But are we sick of it now? I say enough already with the purpose. We just want out of this mess. Extra took the pulse of the globe and responded in kind.

The brand tapped into our desperation to break free of our homes and our sticky little hands. We long to be silly, to hug and kiss again. We want to hang out together and embrace office small talk.

Yes, smart brands have gently put down the mantle of purpose. Some have, instead, leaned into the epic weirdness of it all, like Burger King. Their Impossible Whopper ad orbits the utter confusion we feel these days, how we struggle daily with what to do – but mostly, what not to do. We just want to put this hellscape in the rearview mirror.

Purpose has a purpose. But it shouldn’t be a default rabbit hole for brands, especially now.

We are weary of worrying, tired of being on high alert and wringing our hands. And a few smart brands have cracked the code.

Angst and earnestness will reclaim their place. But maybe it’s time to put purpose on pause.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is the founder, consultant and creative director of The Township Group, as well as a Cannes Advisory Board Member.