Profit or purpose? What matters in B2B marketing?

14th May 2017

I’m a huge fan of Mark Ritson. For me, he’s an important (and irreverent) voice for anyone in marketing. His most recent Marketing Week article is once again a no-holds-barred commentary on the latest headline-grabbing marketing activity, this time the incredibly moving ‘Worlds Apart’ ad from Heineken. This four-minute video has generated 12 million views on YouTube and a huge amount of response and commentary, particularly in the wake that awful Pepsi ad.

Video screen shot

Provocative as ever, Mark asks the question ‘Is it any good?’. In other words, despite the worthy sentiments expressed in the video and the over-riding and very relevant message about focusing on the things that unite us as human beings, the question he’s asking from a purely marketing point of view is: Will this ad help Heineken sell more beer?

His answer clearly is no, it will not, so it’s a waste of Heineken’s marketing time and budget. He then goes on a bit of a rant about how marketing has drifted away from its core purpose of selling stuff – that a focus on purpose has replaced an essential focus on making money for our companies. And, I agree with every single point that Mark makes, which for me boils down to these 3 things:

  • Marketing is how brands grow awareness, drive preference and ultimately increase sales;
  • There is a worrying lack of commercial focus within our profession;
  • This ad would work just as well with Guinness, Becks, Strongbow, Stella Artois or a host of other beverages.

In spite of this, I disagree with Mark on a fundamental level.

The headline for his article states that ‘…marketing is about profit, not purpose’. Yet, for me, it’s not either/or. Marketing is about profits and purpose, because profits alone are no longer the sole drivers for our businesses.

(I can hear Mark groaning now….)

Common wisdom has long held that the sole purpose of business (and thus marketing) is to make money and increase shareholder value.

Of course, companies must be profitable to survive. But our organisations are a part of our wider society and they wield enormous power in ways that influence the world we live in. The choices companies make for how they conduct their business have an impact far beyond profits and shareholder value.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com has famously said that the purpose of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders – it’s also about improving the world:

 ‘It’s my belief that businesses are the greatest platforms for change and can have an enormous impact on improving the state of the world. [We are] responsible for more than just shareholders. We are accountable for the wellbeing of … our fellow beings on this planet we inhabit’. (Huffington Post, 2016)

We are increasingly looking for and expecting a wider societal purpose from the organisations we buy from and do business with.

Mark’s groans probably just got a whole lot louder; if he’s reading this (I can dream, can’t I?) he might even be expressing a few choice words right now. He has long openly ridiculed this focus on purpose, saying that buyers really don’t care about higher purpose, they just want products and services that make their lives easier at prices they can afford.

I can’t argue with the latter part of that statement. Nevertheless, it’s my belief that in a commercial landscape that’s becoming increasingly commoditised, we can no longer depend on differentiating our products or services on features, benefits or price. Whether it’s in large ways or small, how our organisations make a difference to the world we live in matters. It matters to the people we employ and it matters to the people who buy from us. Purpose may well be the only differentiator we have to our competitors.

Still, Mark makes a valid point. Although it’s not because of brand purpose in and of itself. The biggest challenge in articulating purpose is that it’s immensely difficult to be authentic and true to our brands, so that our purpose meaningfully reflects our organisations and can be recognized as such. Most corporate expressions of purpose do end up sounding the same and interchangeable, too often focused on the huge global challenges – hunger, poverty, disease – that have nothing to do with who we are as organisations. Yet this is marketing’s responsibility. It’s not brand purpose that’s the issue, it’s marketing’s execution of purpose where it has tended to go awry, so that articulating purpose has most often become an exercise in banalities, with no differentiation at all.

As Mark rightfully states, any company could have done this ad.

The point is, they didn’t. Heineken did. I know it and everyone else who has seen it knows it. Contrary to what Mark says in his article, this ad does do what marketing is meant to do – ‘grow awareness, drive preference and ultimately increase sales’ for Heineken. Because Heineken has created a small masterpiece of communication, something that is truly memorable, feels true to Heineken, and matters to us. And this single ad will linger in people’s hearts and minds long after this campaign is over.

Mark, I’m still a fan, but on this we disagree. Purpose matters and Heineken has created a genuinely terrific ad. In fact, the next time I buy a beer I will buy a Heineken. And it will be because of this ad. I’d say job well done. Cheers!

Heineken bottle


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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