Companies are increasingly using advertising to persuade consumers of their social responsibility as much as to spruik their products, in a high-risk strategy known as ‘purposeful marketing’. By Mike Seccombe.

Lamb ads and purposeful marketing

Sam Kekovich (right) in Meat & Livestock Australia’s 2019 advertisement ‘Share the Lamb’.
Credit: / Australian Lamb

For more than a decade, Meat & Livestock Australia’s lamb advertisements themed around Australia Day became almost as much a part of summer as flies and sunburn.

Every year there was a new ad, with a fresh tirade from that parody of a right-winger, Sam Kekovich, insisting that the only patriotic way to celebrate our national day was with lamb on the barbecue. To do anything else, to quote just a small part of one Kekovich diatribe, was to be un-Australian, like those “long-haired, dole-bludging types indulging their pierced tastebuds in all manner of foreign, often vegetarian cuisine” such as “a No. 42 with rice … And people ask why we need capital punishment.”

The belligerence may have been funny by virtue of its excess, but after 10 years Kekovich’s schtick was getting tired. It looked less like parody as the hard right became harder to laugh off.

So, in 2015, the lamb ads changed. The reactionary ranter was out. In his place was cricketing great Richie Benaud, inviting around to his place various prominent past and present cultural icons – Captain Cook, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, Ita Buttrose and others – for an Australia Day barbecue and backyard cricket.

Under a new agency, The Monkeys, the “strategic essence” of the campaign was the message of unity, that “you’ll never lamb alone”, that lamb was the meat acceptable to all races, religions and cultures. It promoted an inclusionary Australia, not the jingoistic, exclusionary one of the Kekovich years.

“The genius of the original campaign was linking lamb to Australia Day and making it the national meat,” says Scott Nowell, co-founder and chief creative officer of The Monkeys. “But it had to evolve.”

And it had to evolve even further, perhaps, than the ad men first realised. The problem wasn’t just the tone of the old Kekovich ads, but the very basis of the campaign – the linkage between the national meat and the national day. The growing controversy about the appropriateness of celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, the beginning of Indigenous dispossession, was very problematic.

“The campaign is about unity and bringing people together,” says Nowell. “In the context of a campaign that had been going 12 or 13 years, it’s not bringing everybody together, so what do you do about it?”

They began by trying to put a little distance between the product and the controversy.

“That was the last time we did something that was specifically around Australia Day,” Nowell says of the 2016 ad, which featured then SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin running a military campaign to extract Australians stuck overseas on January 26 and bring them home. “We knew we had to take the Lamb for Unity on a different path.”

Thereafter they took on board the criticism that the ads were too white, and, in the case of the Operation Boomerang ad featuring Chin, both culturally insensitive and unfortunately militaristic.

“We came out later that year with an ad about multiculturalism that ended with the guy cooking saying, ‘Who was here first?’ And Cathy Freeman and Greg Inglis saying, ‘That’d be us.’ That put us on the path to the next thing, which was the barbecue featuring arrivals from all the different countries.”

Still, controversy was hard to shake and last year’s ad addressed it with a parody of West Side Story featuring opposing gangs of cultural warriors. “Quick kids, go inside,” says a woman grilling cutlets on a Weber in her front yard. “It’s the extreme left- and right-wing commentators represented as Broadway-musical style street gangs, a satirical commentary on our current divided political climate.”

The ad ended with all enjoying a unifying lamb meal, of course, but it was arguably a misstep. No one likes having their views described as extreme. And the ad, like one of the characters portrayed in it, came across as fence-sitting.

Not this year. The 2019 lamb ad features a group of marketing strategists – presumably government ones – conceding Australia has lost its mojo as the best country in the world, and that New Zealand now does Australia better than Australia. Behind them, a picture of Malcolm Turnbull is taken from the wall and replaced with Scott Morrison, before that, too, is taken down. A unification of the two countries is floated, a new national day we can all celebrate, with the Kiwis offered a deal in which they get to share our lamb and we get to share their prime minister.

Asked how one is to read the politics of the ad, Nowell says it simply reflects “global affection for the style of leadership that Jacinda Ardern offers”.

Partly intentionally and partly through the force of circumstance, the promoters of lamb have entered the arena of purposeful marketing, albeit covertly. Their stated purpose is unity, but the unstated message is that unity is not possible while we celebrate Australia Day when we do.

“Purpose” is a buzzword in advertising and marketing these days. As Vince Mitchell, professor of marketing at the University of Sydney Business School, explains it, it goes to a “third era” of branding.

“Ads were once purely functional, about quenching your thirst, feeding your hunger et cetera,” Mitchell says.

“Then we moved to an era where brands had an identity. The classic was Coca-Cola, associated with happiness. Now we are into a third era of brands, where it’s about whether you have a purpose. Beyond quenching your thirst, can you tap into some more deep and meaningful human condition?”

The concept is also controversial within the industry. There are still many who hold that brand success is largely down to product quality, distinctive labelling and good logistics in getting it to the customer.

But there can be no doubting that when it is done well, purposeful marketing works spectacularly.

In 2016, Procter & Gamble mounted a campaign called “Dads #ShareTheLoad” for its laundry detergent brand in India. Instead of simply suggesting its product cleaned clothes better, it made washing an issue of gender equality, focusing on the fact that even as Indian women had increasingly entered the paid workforce, Indian men were not helping in the home.

The ad not only pushed social change and social media discussion, it also pushed sales and profit. After the campaign launched in 2016, sales jumped 76 per cent. In 2018, the World Advertising Research Center named it the world’s most effective campaign.

Last September, Nike decided to make former star NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick the focus of its latest “Just Do It” campaign. Reviled by right-wingers, including Donald Trump, Kaepernick had been shut out of the NFL for “taking a knee” during the national anthem in protest at police brutality towards African Americans.

The ads provoked a furious reaction among right-wing nationalists, some of whom publicly burnt their Nike shoes. But three months later, a few days before Christmas, Nike announced it had wildly exceeded sales projections and reported a 10 per cent increase in income, to $US847 million. The company’s share price jumped 7.2 per cent in a week where the market experienced its worst results in a decade, with the Dow Jones index falling 6.9 per cent.

Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick was all the more risky given what had happened the previous year when Pepsi featured model Kendall Jenner in an ad that co-opted imagery from the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Jenner marched alongside happy, smiling, attractive people carrying anodyne signs such as “Join the conversation”. In the final scene, she handed a can of Pepsi to a cop, who smiled as the crowd erupted into cheers, hugs and high fives. Pepsi was accused of trivialising a serious social issue and within 24 hours the ad was taken down as the company issued an apology.

Gillette’s recent campaign, which amended the brand slogan from “The best a man can get” to “The best men can be”, and called out toxic masculinity, received a highly visible negative response from its target audience, including calls for a boycott, though the company says its sales have not been negatively impacted.

In Australia, Woolworths’ Anzac Day campaign, where the company’s logo and the phrase “Fresh in our memories” was placed over the images of former soldiers, failed spectacularly.

For a brand to stand for something other than its product is clearly a high-risk strategy, even if the rewards for getting it right are also big. But we can expect more of it for a number of reasons.

First, says Andrew Hughes, lecturer in marketing at the Australian National University, “it’s getting ever harder to get attention in an information-intense world”.

Being seen as “both good corporate citizens and good social citizens, being engaged in society” garners such attention, he says, citing the example of corporations, such as Apple and Qantas, that took a position on the issue of marriage equality.

The second reason is that staff, as well as customers, increasingly expect it, says Michael Nearhos, former general manager of brand experience with National Australia Bank, now marketing director with Virgin Australia.

At NAB, says Nearhos, they commissioned market research that showed “some 70 per cent of customers expected brands to stand for something, whether it be hiring Indigenous staff, supporting women in the workplace, or LGBTQI rights”.

He, too, is an apostle of “purposeful” marketing, but says “there needs to be an authentic connection”.

So where does a bank go – given the reputation of banks – for authenticity? Nearhos oversaw NAB’s sponsorship of women’s AFL, and continues that sporting link with Virgin.

Authenticity can be problematic not only for the corporation, but for the cause it endorses, as Kate Wickett, co-chair of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, can attest.

Corporate sponsorship is perennially controversial within the Mardi Gras community, and all the more so now that such support is fashionable among corporates. A lot of would-be sponsors have been rejected, she says, and only those who pass due diligence of their internal practices are accepted.

Still, this is where advertisers are going, whether they do it deliberately, like Nike and Gillette, or are driven to it by circumstance, like lambs.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Purpose gilt".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.