Purpose: You’ve either got it or you don’t

Last month, creative strategist Zac Martin wrote a piece for Mumbrella titled 'purpose is the symptom of an embarrassed industry'. Here, strategy director Paul Scarf provides his response.

Adland has always been cynical, but I have to question whether we have reached a new level when we start criticising brands for doing good. A few weeks ago, Zac Martin wrote a piece on the industry’s ‘new’ obsession with aligning to social causes – citing Corona’s sustainable plastic activation as being off brand, and Airbnb’s marriage inequality campaign as ‘distracting’.

Corona’s sustainable plastic activation

As a long-standing partner of the World Surf League and general purveyor of idyllic ocean imagery, doesn’t Corona have every right to raise awareness about ocean degradation? As an organisation with a nondiscrimination charter guiding how its community should act and a long time supporter of LGBTIQA+ communities around the world, why shouldn’t Airbnb talk about marriage equality?

Apple announced in June that it will now give its phone users a detailed breakdown of how much time they spend on their phones and on each app, allowing people to set goals to reduce their usage and in the process truly empowering their customers – demonstrating at its core the company is concerned about its purpose in its customers lives.

If Apple succeeds in reducing users’ screen time by fifteen minutes a day,  they will be taking more than one billion user hours per week out of the ad ecosystem and giving this time back to their customers.

Of course these brands are out to make money. Of course they want people to buy their product. But if they can raise awareness and make an impact, they should be applauded for it.

I do understand Zac’s point. When it doesn’t feel genuine, it can become a distraction and sometimes these causes can become an add-on for brands: they appear just at the right time to amp up the party but disappear when things get messy.

The point is that purpose can’t be retrofitted. You’ve either got it, or you don’t.

Brands built on purpose

These are the businesses that were built to create a better future for their customers. They exist to solve problems and continuously evolve and respond to needs in the market by improving their products and services to remain relevant in an environment where loyalty is fragmented.

Within this context, purpose is not a concept cooked up by marketers; it’s the very basis of that brand. Purpose-driven brands know that their brand story and commitment to creating a better world through their products and services drives consumer connection.

These brands become ‘living businesses’. They take their purpose and keep it firmly in the minds of consumers by staying relevant. They have the ability to pivot faster, respond to consumer needs quicker, and use this to drive deeper connection.

Look at Procter & Gamble, a brand who has undoubtedly slapped on many a corporate social responsibility initiative, but might struggle to argue they have a purpose beyond the bottom line. They have struggled their way through 2018 with lower-than-expected revenue and resulting share price volatility. At every turn, they are being outdone by purposeful, relevant businesses.

Some cases in point:

Zuper Superannuation

Zuper aims to move the super industry forward from the current murky depths allowing people the autonomy to invest in industries they are passionate about and align with their values. In its manifesto Zuper outlines the exact problems with the old model and seeks to overturn this.


Glossier is taking on the regime of the beauty giants with ethical products founded on the ideal that beauty isn’t made in a boardroom and that ‘Personal choice is the most important decision a brand can never make.’


WeWork seeks to redefine and provide an alternative to the current model of communal workspaces. They exist to ‘create a world where people make a life, not just a living.’


Canva is the simple online design tool that allows anyone to ‘easily create beautiful designs and documents’. Started by Australian Melanie Perkins in 2007, its purpose is to democratise design.


Square has a simple offer: easy-to-use, hassle free tech that allows businesses of all sizes to accept card payments with ease. Their guiding mission is a belief that everyone should be able to participate and thrive in the economy.

Looking at the above brands, their purposes all stem from some very basic, intrinsic rights and values. Democratisation. Autonomy of choice. They identify where people feel these rights are lacking and look to offer a solution. And it’s through building connections at this purpose-centric, connections-led, almost subconscious level, that they find their strength – and ultimately – their ticket to growth.

But without a doubt, purpose is a fundamental aspect, a foundational building block for a number of incredibly successful and worthy brands.

So maybe the key here is to make a valid distinction between brands who have slapped on a purpose as a means to be seen as relevant, and those who have it as a true reason for being. That way we can continue the brand purpose conversation whilst maintaining a healthy dose of cathartic adland cynicism.

Paul Scarf is strategy director at Alchemy One.


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