Brand purpose isn’t the problem, it’s our abuse of it that is

Al Crawford explores how marketers have twisted data, forsaken narrative and overinflated campaigns all in the name of brand purpose.

Reticent is a great word. Or at least, it was. These days, it gets dragged out of the dictionary and pummelled senseless by people who use it in sentences like: “I’m reticent to do that.”

Same thing goes for purpose. One minute, it’s going innocently about its business. The next it’s having seven shades of shit kicked out of it by every Tom, Dick and Harriet in brand management.

The problem crept in when people got all la-di-da with it. Back in the day, purpose was just a synonym for other common sense marketing terms like brand mission, organising idea, or, if you were feeling particularly macho, brand fight.

But then all hell broke loose. Boring ol’ purpose achieved a cult-like status in many circles. But, like most cults, this one is full of some fairly strange beliefs.

Now, I know a lot of this has been said before (see Ritson, Prof. M) but, judging by the stuff I see on the intertubes, it bears repetition.

Abuse #1: The grand narrative, not the right narrative.

Time was when it was enough just to home in on something motivating, distinctive and true. Like BMW’s aspiration to deliver sheer driving pleasure.

This culminated in the end-line ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’, which seems to have served them reasonably well down the years.

These days, everyone seems to want to get all celestial and worthy on its ass, with marketers hanging their heads in shame if they don’t have a purpose that ‘plays in culture.’ (see Saturday Night Live).

God knows who Patient Zero was, but the momentum behind this has become unstoppable, culminating in the ‘Doing good is good business’ mantra.

The cynics see this as a product either of virtue-signalling, bourgeois guilt or both.

I just reckon it’s one of those magnificently attractive ideas that achieve unstoppable momentum – like communism. Which also turned out to be a bit rubbish.

Which leads us to abuse number two.

Abuse #2: ‘The irrefutable data’ spiel.

Much of the belief in purpose’s almighty power seems to originate from Jim Stengel’s book, Grow.

Now, in fairness to Stengel, I don’t think even he meant that a purpose always had to have some kind of transcendent societal benefit.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about his data, which suggested that brand ideal/purpose-led brands outperformed those without one. It’s this that seems to form the basis of most people’s ‘case for’.

That argument’s been Shotton to pieces. And it’s well-worth a read.

In short. It’s balderdash. Not that the multi-millionaire Jim Stengel probably cares.

On top of that, there’s a morass of stuff circulating about how Millennials (whatever they are) crave purpose at work (whatever that is).

Again, I want to believe that the new generation aren’t a bunch of money-grubbing narcissists like me, but I can’t find any incontrovertible proof of this.

What I can find is a lot of millennial only studies which don’t allow for any point of comparison. Or plenty that ask the question in a way that assumes we’re all crystal clear what purpose means.

This seems dangerous. Because if I’m asked whether I want purpose in the workplace, I’d just assume you were asking whether I wanted a job that wasn’t completely pointless. Then I’d tick the ‘yes’ box.

Don’t take it from me. The boffins have proved that its meaning is, at the very least, elastic.

More to the point, there’s evidence that so-called millennials aren’t any more preoccupied by this theme than the rest of us. Potentially less so.

So let’s not trot out the ‘it’s because the young ‘uns need it/your business will thrive’ hybrid quite so readily.

Abuse #3: Using purpose to describe every single vaguely worthy act a company does.

Sweet lordy me, but this is a common one. Every time some brand twitches a vaguely worthy muscle, we lump it into the purpose-led camp and clap vigorously.

My rule of thumb is this: if the entire business is oriented around it as its defining idea, if it feeds into what it does on a daily basis in multiple places and varied actions, then it’s a purpose. If it’s activity that supports a cause, then that’s what it is.

This would stop us lazily labelling campaigns like Fearless Girl as purpose-led. They’re not. They’re cause-related campaigns from brands whose purpose is something else.

Or at least, I hope it’s something else. Because if State Street’s purpose is gender equality, they’ve got some issues they need to resolve.

Best I can find is that it’s one of State Street’s values. Which doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

Here’s the good news. If we stop the abuse it’ll liberate, not constrain us.

We’ll feel empowered to investigate all potential strategic rungs on the benefit ladder and won’t be disappointed if we don’t reach the supposed promised land.

We’ll go for natural fits, not forced ones, where we try to push our brand into the heavens without any earthly reason to do so.

When we hear the creaking, we’ll back away gracefully and cheerfully. We can’t all be a Lifebuoy soap. We don’t need to be, either.

If what we arrive at is no more lofty than making exceedingly delicious cakes, we’ll go with it. Providing it motivates our customers, staff and partners. And it’s clear white space. And it’s a cake brand.

And we’ll dare to create culture, not just play in it. As far as I can tell, Red Bull’s purpose is no more than ‘stimulating body and mind’, which doesn’t leap off the page as a societal game-changer.

Rather, it’s their ambition to create content (and culture) which has helped them transcend the drinks category.

Finally, it’ll mean that we focus on ideas that drive every single aspect of the brand rather than getting obsessed by stand-alone CSR activities, no matter how worthwhile, which aren’t the beating heart of the institution.

So be good to purpose. It’s just trying to have a merry Yuletide, like the rest of us.

Al Crawford is a marketing consultant. 


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