Opinion

The death of ‘purpose-wank’?

In this outtake from The Weekend Mumbo, Damian Francis questions if purpose, or a subset of purpose, is a victim of the industry's ongoing shifts in the shadow of economic uncertainty.

The media and marketing world is in flux. New leaders bedding into roles everywhere, clients reevaluating their agency rosters all over the shop, and all of it in the shadow of economic uncertainty.

In light of this, I wanted to highlight a potential victim of the shifts.

Purpose.

Where does all this change leave purpose? Should we be championing it in these circumstances? Will economic uncertainty kill it off? Do brands and agencies treat it like nonsense when return is king?

We’ll explore that today. But we will also explore how it could be a subset of purpose, rather than purpose as a whole, that is the real victim. And if this is the case, it would do the entire industry a massive favour.

Was it all just “purpose-wank” (a Ritson-ism) to begin with? Let’s dive in.

Why purpose will be challenged 

According to Deloitte Insights, “… many organisations are redefining the articulation of why they exist and how they make an impact beyond profit. For many, having “purpose” drive much of their business and operations has gone from aspiration to strategic priority.”

The research continues: “While all brands definitely still need to deliver price and quality, these two dimensions are largely commodity features—or table stakes—rather than differentiators. Other criteria, including purpose-related factors, then become competitive differentiators.

“When brands know whom they are serving and what those individuals specifically care about, they can position their purpose as a competitive differentiator…”

So in essence, purpose not only has the power to make staff or consumers like you, it can also affect the bottom line. It takes time, though.

The brutal question: How does purpose survive through waves of change mixed with economic uncertainty? To suggest your brand has purpose costs money, after all. Money you may not see a return on straight away.

Unfortunately for purpose believers, the many statistics backing up the value of purpose generally centre around consumer surveys rather than direct and unarguable links to actual sales or business results. More on that later on as well.

A few reasons to believe 

There are a few wins in market at the moment that are like forbidden fruit – big money deals that require brands to generally throw their purpose out the window. Working with a challenging brand or political party, airing a sporting event in a problematic location, creating a product cheaper by cutting labour costs. There are more, of course.

If you truly believe in your brand’s stated purpose, then no amount of financial gain will convince you to ditch it. Purpose, in this instance, is priceless, and is a cornerstone of the brand. A good example here is Patagonia. The option to ditch purpose to help the bottom line is off the table as it’s been baked into the brand from the beginning.

Last month Porter Novelli CEO Rhys Ryan wrote in The Australian: “The message is clear. As a brand, if your relationship with your customers, your employees and your stakeholders has become a transactional, rational one that is still focused on crisis mode, you need to think fast. And more importantly, act fast.”

In other words, consumers are looking for meaning in their brand relationships. The problem is that in environments like this, transactional and rational are comfortable. They keep investor stakeholders happy as well.

And if your purpose is weak and more lip service than anything else, this is where the curtain drops and fraud is revealed.

“Some companies will get found out to have overstated their purpose under pressure,” FutureBrand Australia CEO Richard Curtis told me.

Curtis: Worth the investment to stay the course

“But when you strengthen the link between your brand’s purpose and the everyday experience, that’s when your brand gives your business a measurable competitive advantage. Consequently it’s worth the investment to stay the course. And I mean that literally, sticking to and delivering on your purpose is an investment that ought to ‘cost’ you something in order to realise the return.”

That last part is going to hurt a bit in this environment, but there should be payoff.

In 2020 Zeno Group conducted the Strength of Purpose study, which found: “Beyond purchase intent, purpose acts as a shield for your brand. We found when a brand has a strong purpose, consumers are six times more likely to continue supporting that brand in a challenging moment.”

Furthermore: “Purpose also elevates your consumers from transactional buyers to brand advocates. When respondents think a brand has a strong purpose, they are 4.5 times more likely to recommend the brand to friends and family.”

So suck up the short term pain (and cost) and continue to invest in purpose then, right? Yes… but only if it’s true purpose.

Maximum strength BS

As mentioned above, one of the biggest challenges here is that the majority of brands have overstated their purpose under pressure.

The Savage Company founder Chris Savage told me: “My observation is that, for many brands and corporates, delivering financial results and hitting targets quickly hijacks commitment to purpose if that purpose becomes a hindrance to delivering the target. I realise this might not be a popular view, but it’s the reality I have observed.

Terry Smith, the investment analyst that runs Fundsmith Equity Fund and is a significant shareholder in Unilever, is perhaps one of the most vocal opponents to purpose.

After feedback flowed in following his original spray at Unilever and some of its investment in purpose across its brands, he wrote in his 2022 annual investors report that revenue growth doesn’t prove purpose works.

“Of course there is no control in that experiment; we don’t know how well it would have grown without the virtue signalling ‘purpose’. It also confuses correlation with cause and effect. There may be a positive correlation between stork sightings and births but that doesn’t prove that one causes the other.”

For a change, it seems Mark Ritson is not the most outspoken person on this matter. But he did weigh in previously, responding to Peter Field’s now (in)famous talk for the IPA on brand purpose.

Ritson

“Field’s analysis demonstrated, quite clearly, that the average purpose campaign was significantly less likely to generate very strong, long-term business effects when compared with “traditional” non-purpose campaigns,” Ritson wrote in his regular Marketing Week column. “That should have been the main headline of the work. But marketing is far too politically correct and too many senior marketing reputations have been built from the bricks of brand purpose for that more accurate headline to emerge.”

He has, as usual, a point. No one I spoke to who did not believe in the power of brand purpose was willing to go on record with any kind of strong commentary.

Your move…

As businesses (that includes everyone in our industry, such as agencies) strap in for the white knuckle ride that 2023 is shaping up to be, we are likely to see which brands truly believe in purpose.

We will also see which have created meaningless fluff, or Ritson’s purpose-wank.

Any business that has created purpose-wank will quickly drop it. And it may be obvious. That is the favour to the industry I was talking about. We don’t need it. The quicker purpose-wank dies, the better.

But for those that baked it in properly, it will be a different story.

Regular columnist for Mumbrella (and Trinity P3 founder and global CEO) Darren Woolley wrote this for us almost a year ago.

“The reason they (brands) define and live this purpose is to be profitable. After all, profit is to business what breathing is to people. None of us live simply to breathe. But if you don’t breathe, you don’t live.”

The curtain has opened, the chances are it will reveal quite a bit of fraud, but that will help to highlight the good as well.

Damian Francis is editorial director at Mumbrella.

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