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Spikes Asia 2019: “Purpose has to be deeply rooted in the brand” — Dentsu Inc.’s Toshihiko Tanabe

SINGAPORE — One of the most intriguing sessions in this year’s Spikes Asia Festival was that of Dentsu Inc.’s Creative Director Toshihiko Tanabe. He posed a very curious statement in front of a packed crowd with his session Don’t Let ‘Purpose’ Ruin Our Industry during the second day of the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity.

Every year, the festival brings in the biggest names in the creatives industry of the region, giving delegates the opportunity to hear and learn from them firsthand and be updated on the latest news, trends, and issues that the industry needs to address. Tanabe brings up a peculiar point, one that sounds wrong, but right at the same time.


Purpose-driven campaigns are currently close to the heart of the industry, as more and more brands are jumping on the bandwagon of advocacy-centered initiatives. This is mainly because brands are being told that they need to have more purpose to have a relationship with consumers. Tanabe was recently a juror at Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and noticed that 16 out of the 21 Grand Prix winners were cause-related campaigns. In fact, 78% of consumers believe brands should address issues that are important to society. While there is nothing wrong about wanting to make meaningful campaigns that, it can get out of hand and can be detrimental to brands and agencies.

“The biggest mistake brands make is limiting their support of a cause platform to simply advertising,” Tanabe argues. Forced brand purpose without thinking about the company’s roots and vision has led to ill-thought of campaigns, with Tanabe using examples like a beer brand offering a women’s discount to make up for the gender pay gap and a soft-drinks company offering a $1 donation to a diabetes foundation (ironically) for every product purchased.

Consumers can detect bullshit, and superficial campaigns can hurt brands in a worst case scenario.

“Purpose has to be deeply rooted in the core of the brand,” states Tanabe. “I just trust that the jury is wise enough, when they see bullshit in purpose campaigns, to call it out.” 

He mentions two great purpose campaigns — Volvo’s EVA and Ikea’s “ThisAbles”. It makes sense for Volvo’s EVA campaign to focus on safety innovation, as it has always been rooted in the various campaigns Volvo has exercised since the 1950s as a car company, and Ikea’s brand has always been about the democratization of furniture for everyone.

Another example would be Patagonia’s campaign Facing Extinction. For one day, across the world in all their offices, Patagonia closed for a day to allow their employees to join the youth activists in the US peacefully striking for climate action and demanding that governments address the climate crisis.

To truly make amazing work, it’s important to understand the brand that you’re working with. Is the advocacy that clients want to push deeply rooted in the core of the brand? Purpose campaigns, Tanabe mentions, is not a stint you can borrow, but something that should apply on for years in the brand.

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