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Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Social Good

Haters gonna hate, but purpose is going nowhere

By Bill Oberlander, Co-founder and chief creative officer

January 17, 2023 | 7 min read

Oberland co-founder and chief creative officer Bill Oberlander makes the case for values-driven messaging and marketing – even amid growing criticism of so-called ‘purpose-washing.’


Purpose is here to stay, argues Oberland co-founder Bill Oberlander. / Bob Jansen

With the Super Bowl coming up, advertising’s navel-gazers will be watching carefully to suss out the prevailing trends and separate the worthwhile from the meaningless. One trend we’re sure to see is an influx of purpose-oriented TV spots and campaigns.

We’ll be seeing a new spot for Hellman’s mayonnaise from Unilever in the Big Game that will promote eating leftovers (served with plenty of mayo) as a way to reduce food waste and ultimately cause less harm to our planet. This will be the brand's third Super Bowl appearance with this message.

Purposeful, or clueless? Positioning like this caused Terry Smith, one of the most outspoken investors in Unilever, to doubt its strategy in 2022, saying: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot.”

Smith is not alone, as a vocal legion of ‘purpose-haters’ will surely take to their respective blogs, Twitter accounts and other forums on February 12 to question whether it’s money well-spent or an exercise in corporate self-aggrandizement.

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As co-founder of an agency that has staked its very being on creating purpose-driven marketing campaigns, we’re watching this with no small amount of self-interest. For us, ‘purpose’ isn’t a trend. It’s become a given – as much as part of the marketing conversation today as digital was just a short generation ago.

Remember that discussion in the early 90s? Many questioned digital as a foundational marketing tool all the way into the aughts. Indeed, the history of almost all emerging media technology is rife with people who should have known better suggesting it’s so much hooey, hokum and bunk. Tech pioneer Robert Metcalf stands out as an example; the inventor of the Ethernet famously predicted in the mid-90s that the ‘internet’ would collapse within a year. As Humphrey Bogart said in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic Casablanca, he was misinformed.

Still, ‘purpose’ remains widely misunderstood.

Before the post-game second-guessing begins, allow me to reflect on the meaning of ‘purpose’ in messaging today. It hinges on the ongoing confusion about what constitutes conscious capitalism and the role of brands in the lives of consumers today.

Years ago, when I was dreaming of opening my own ‘purpose-driven’ agency, many scratched their heads and asked, “What is this ‘purpose’ of which you speak?” An agency search consultant advised me, “Clients don’t care about that ‘do-goodie BS,’” and warned me I’d need a vape account to pay for all that “happy horseshit.”

This still-prevailing mindset has me convinced that the ad industry doesn’t fully understand what defines genuine purpose-led marketing. Yes, there’s been a fair share of disingenuous ‘purpose’ marketing efforts over the years — from Pepsi’s debacle with Kendall Jenner to Gillette proclaiming their razors can inspire young boys to respect women more with ‘The Best A Man Can Be.’ Both of these efforts were baseless, misaligned with the brand’s values, and immediately shamed and discontinued.

But the positive impact created by authentic purpose-led brands far outweighs the missteps. Dove, Chobani, REI, Ben + Jerry’s, Nike, Patagonia, Seventh Generation, Beats by Dre, Warby Parker, THINX — to name but a few — are genuine brands that have the authentic credibility to take a stand on social issues, and have used that currency to sell their goods and services. They’re doing well by doing good because the new generation of consumers demands brands to behave responsibly in the world. That is not a fleeting trend. These are the facts. Ask any millennial or Zoomer. They are literally voting with their wallets.

On a personal level, I believe ‘purpose’ is not an indulgence, but a necessity. Why wouldn’t we want to spread the word about doing good in the world? Look around – with our environment under attack, our civil rights compromised, our healthcare system failing, an unfolding mental health crisis for our youth, an ominous war in Ukraine and more, it seems we need all the help we can get, with not a moment to waste.

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‘Purpose’ is more relevant in our industry than ever. And evidently, Unilever thinks so too. No hating here. I salute Hellman’s for their consistent and authentic message of “make taste, not waste,” and hope to see more brands spreading the love of purpose-led marketing – and spreading it on thick.

Bill Oberlander is co-founder and chief creative officer at Oberland.

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