Purpose could be ‘the death of brands’, warns Byron Sharp
Warning of a ‘cultural cringe’ and sense of insecurity within marketing, Professor Byron Sharp is calling on marketers to stop the self-hatred and have more pride in their profession.
Marketers are afflicted by a lack of self-confidence and pride, and one of the main symptoms to have arisen from this is the idea brands should have a higher societal purpose beyond profit, warns Professor Byron Sharp.
The widespread adoption of social purpose, he argued, could lead to brands becoming too similar and consequently being picked off by private labels.
Speaking at the Festival of Marketing: The Year Ahead today (18 October), Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and long-time critic of brand purpose, argued that from a branding perspective, if a company goes down this route “it’s just so easy to copy”.
“As a marketer I worry that it leads to the sort of advertising a 12-year-old kid would come up with in a high school assignment. ‘Buy this brand because it will help children in Africa’. If all brands do that it’s very boring and not creative. It’s not branding,” said Sharp.
Many years ago, he predicted that private label products – goods created by one company to be sold and branded by another – would eventually pick off and replace the most simply differentiated brands.
At first, that meant those brands that were differentiated by being the cheapest in their category. Then, it was those brands differentiating themselves on being organic, or sold on being British.
“That’s just so easy to pick up,” he said.
So, if the marketing community succeeds in teaching consumers they should only buy brands that donate to charity or are seen as doing good for the world, private labels can easily take that over as well.
“It could be the end of brands,” Sharp warned. “Retailers will just dominate.”
Marketers should instead have more self-confidence and belief in the good marketing does in the world by itself without seeking a higher purpose, he argued.
“There’s a cultural cringe in marketing, a sort of insecurity. On one hand, there’s a feeling that general management and the CEO, and the CFO don’t take marketing seriously. On the other hand, there’s a feeling that people on the street or friends at dinner parties see the profession as dubious,” he continued.