On purpose (revisited)


The backlash against brand purpose is well and truly underway.

A growing number of industry heavy hitters have taken aim at the idea of brands espousing a purpose over and above the need for profits or growth, including marketing’s most retweetable man, Dave Trott:

“In marketing, the current belief is that having a higher purpose will benefit any brand. So strong, so unquestioned, is this belief that purposes are grafted on to brands willy-nilly. Family harmony, a strong community, hope for the future, education, world peace. It doesn’t much matter what the higher purpose is or how it relates to the brand. As long as it gives us a nice warm feeling.”

Where once we were led to believe that purpose-driven businesses outperformed their more lacklustre cousins (admittedly with some fairly weak evidence to back up the claims), now we are told that it’s just another great marketing con – a cynical ploy to dress rapacious corporations up as something they are most definitely not.

Critics of purpose say that it’s wishful thinking and merely a distraction. That it’s dreamt up by insecure marketers, desperate to give their place in the grand scheme of things greater meaning and validity.

But it seems to me that the problem is not with purpose, but with Bad Purpose™. The culprit here is usually thin or shallow thinking, because the idea of brand purpose is so easy to abuse. We can ‘ladder up’ the benefits of any brand until we settle on some lofty (but ultimately meaningless) goal like “make the world a better place”. We can say all the right things while doing all the wrong ones. Think Kendall Jenner, can of Pepsi in hand.

Often the difference between Good Purpose™ and Bad Purpose™ comes down to how it’s regarded and handled. When it’s real and running through the heart of the business (as opposed to laying on the surface like a cheap veneer), then it can be properly transformational. It provides solid reasons to do certain things (or not do them); it attracts people who are motivated by similar ideals, whether those people are staff, investors or customers. It acts as a company’s North Star, something to commit to and measure performance against.

What it can't do is convince you to buy a fizzy drink, like a silver bullet that avoids the need to sell what you do or explain why it’s good, different and useful.

The best way to build a strong brand is to align three things – everything you think, everything you say and everything you do. Or as Campaign’s UK editor Rachel Barnes suggests:

“Purpose is not a marketing plan; it’s a backbone for the whole company. Anything less and you are one of the diluters.”

Above all, brand purpose is never ‘essential’, as some would have you believe. There are plenty of companies who do just fine with no higher aspiration than to employ good people, make great products and satisfy their customers. Pinning a half-baked (and usually inauthentic) purpose on these businesses does more harm than good, and only increases the cynicism that many people feel towards the brands who ask for their trust.

(A follow up to an original article from 2013)