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Let me get straight to the point: In every product category we have measured (at either an umbrella brand or individual product brand level, via thousands of proprietary studies spanning 30 years), we have found the core driver of choice to be dramatically more important in objectively explaining purchase behaviour relative to in-vogue hypothetical drivers, such as trust or purpose.

Performance marketing and brand building based on trust or purpose might please the creatives, but the brand owners are left wondering when the return on marketing communication investment will come, and they have become tired of the Teflon promise that campaign results from pure emotional anthems will develop over time. (Please see The Folly of the ‘The Long and the Short of It’.)

The risky behaviour of marketing strategists

When it comes to building trust, not that long ago, service brands were as synchronized as an orchestral choir. Practically everyone was doing it. But, for most marketers, trust-based brand building became like their unfinished marathon. Building trust threatened to take much longer than the tenure of their CMO. Brands discovered that the stain of distrust was highly resistant to the occasional splash of soapy warm water.

Some tenacious brands have been successful at building trust. These brands exerted more “elbow grease” than others have been prepared to invest. For the brands that fell short, the lack of progress was not only due to the lack of effort, it was process as well. Unless marketers reach beneath the surface to understand the drivers of trust, they will be unable to change their brand’s trust perceptions in-market. (Please see Trust Me, I’m Untrustworthy!).

Unperturbed by their inability to shift trustworthiness, like a carnival stunt rider, many daredevil marketers changed course midstream to land on purpose. It was the perfect near-sighted idea. Unlike trust which would take forever to change, purpose was mostly just a promise. For those marketers, purpose was the long-term debt that the next generation of marketers would have to pick up. Now, the question has become: Which purpose? Google trends provides some insight as to why so many brands have landed on the purpose du jour, carbon, and sustainability.

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Now advertising copy such as “delivering net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050” is appearing alongside brands. Brands know how this works. In some ways, purpose is analogous to sponsorship. The hope with sponsorship is that the favourable brand image of the sponsored asset will transfer back to the brand. A kind of innocence by association.

“The flaw is the belief that consumers will change their shopping behaviour based on a brand’s association with purpose.”

I get the logic; however, the flaw is the belief that consumers will change their shopping behaviour based on a brand’s association with purpose. And, even if there is a minority that will (often that segment seems to max out at 10%), were you more likely to improve sales by being famous for a core category attribute like freshness in supermarkets, low fees in banking, or having a flexible timetable in education, than for being famous for purpose? In any given year, Forethought produces hundreds of product level, category choice models. For the average consumer, universally, environmentally sustainable practice is accountable for a relatively minor driver of consumer choice.

And then there is the small matter of misleading and deceptive conduct. Regulators are increasingly targeting greenwashing.

For example, in Australia, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) released the following:

“A key priority for the ACCC in 2022/23 will be environmental claims and sustainability… This will include focusing our compliance and enforcement efforts on businesses that make false or misleading environmental or ‘green’ claims in relation to consumer goods, or about the carbon neutrality or environmental benefits of their production processes at the retail or corporate level.”

Understanding what drives choice

There is a finite number of explanatory variables that enable the prediction of an individual’s behaviour. Applying these attributes, those skilled in marketing science can predict consumer behaviour with high levels of statistical certainty. In arriving at consumer choice, each explanatory variable has relative importance. The primary marketing decision for the CEO and CMO is what brand attribute the brand should seek to be famous for.

“Should brands communicate their trustworthiness, their stance on environmental, social, and corporate governance, or should brands become famous for their main category driver?”

Successful marketing communication binds the brand emotionally and rationally to the chosen drivers of choice.

The pivotal question is: Should brands communicate their trustworthiness, their stance on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), or should brands become famous for their main category driver such as low-interest rates for banks or fresh produce for supermarkets?

Purpose and trust are not the primary drivers of choice

While many brands have gallantly tried, it has been difficult to convert sustainability and ESG initiatives into consumer preference for more than a minority of consumers.

The challenge for those hoping that purpose will drive choice is found in the following exhibit. The exhibit is from a 2021 study of the choice drivers for the Australian supermarket category. The largest rational driver is the total paid at the checkout at 8.6%. The next most important driver is the freshness of the products at 7.6%. Being a trustworthy brand comes in at a lowly 2.4% and having environmentally sustainable practices is a mere 0.7%. Incidentally, the Gen Z model was chosen because it was the only age-related demographic where environmentally sustainable practices appeared as a driver at all.

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The feelings results have been intentionally redacted.

Once again, the primary marketing decision for the CEO and CMO is what brand attributes the brand should seek to be famous for. Fast, woke fashion should play no part in determining marketing communications. Core category drivers of choice often evolve at a glacial speed. Fresh is a core driver for supermarkets today, and fresh was a core driver for corner stores when Joe was a boy. What does change is brands’ relative performance on a category driver. With a focus on a core, plausible, and ownable category driver, more effective marketing communications, better organizational alignment, and a superior customer experience can relatively quickly place a brand into a share-gaining position. Implying that you are trustworthy and announcing that you will be carbon neutral in tomorrowland will not have a meaningful impact on your brand now, or ever.

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