The darker the world gets, the less we need purpose comms

The public do not want brands lecturing them, says PR expert Sam Barnett
Samuel Barnett
Holier than thou: Do we need brands lecturing us?

The news has never been a cheerful thing, yet today it can feel bleaker than ever. It is no surprise, then, that there is such a longing for the nineties and noughties. Britpop bands are touring, baggy jeans are flourishing and Seinfeld is streaming. That time, perhaps mistakenly, feels like a time of certainty and optimism - one which we long to return to, even if many of us had barely been born.

Communications has, however, changed. PR and marketing professionals have never taken themselves more seriously. Once the industry was known for being fun, shocking and, yes, a little vacuous. Today it is too often preachy, self-righteous and snobbish. An industry that used to float stuff down the Thames is today much more comfortable telling consumers what to think, who to be and even how to vote. We have become obsessed with ‘purpose’.

The change is understandable. As politics collapsed, brands felt a need to fill the void. In a world without credible leaders, brands saw themselves as something that could offer guidance and assurance. Seemingly every one decided it needed a purpose beyond making money and satisfying people.

Most famously, Hellmann’s decided that mayonnaise had a purpose beyond sandwiches and Pepsi shot an ad in which Kendall Jenner resolved a clash between police and confused protesters (Join the conversation!). Yet these are just the most egregious examples. Perhaps equally damaging has been the countless campaigns in which timid brands have tried to stand for something other than selling their product.

No doubt, a few brands do purpose well. But they tend to be the brands for whom purpose actually sells, since it makes sense for their product, their audience and their history. Nike, Dove, Patagonia. Few can do this, however. Most brands sell something like life insurance, or toilet cleaner, or chocolate, most are generally ignored by everyday people. Brands’ main challenge is being remembered and considered. Being one of countless brands pretending to stand for something does little to achieve this.

Rather, brands should realise just how marginal they are to people’s lives. Nobody needs their sandwich spread to give them moral leadership. Especially not when they’re anxious, or struggling for money, or overwhelmed by the news. Endless research shows that people respond best to being entertained by marketing, to humour. This is most true during dark moments, such as recessions. But all this is too often ignored.

We work in communications, we mainly live in London, we’re young(ish) - most of us fell into this profession clutching a Humanities degree, hoping instead to be artists or writers or journalists. We want to change the world, and a brand’s comms budget is our paint and canvas, fountain pen and paper. Yet that’s not our job. Our job is to sell. Hopefully, we can sell something that really does help people and the planet.

True, some brands do need to raise awareness of issues, for policy or reputational issues, for instance. But this can be done in an entertaining way, take Tinder working with Jonathan Bennett to highlight romance scams.

Our focus needs to return to entertaining people, we need to work harder than simply giving lectures. If the world is dark, we should aim to provide some light: escapism, hope, joy. We should return to our industry’s older, more retro self, albeit without all the toxic hang ups that came with tabloid culture. We should have fun again.

Sam Barnett is a PR professional with ten years of experience working for some of the world's largest brands. The views in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. Connect with Sam here.

Written by
Samuel Barnett
November 2, 2023