The absurdity of brand purpose for the sake of brand purpose
The word absurd is typically used to describe something that is contrary to all reason or common sense, such as the idea that pigs can fly or that millennials are a segment.
In philosophy, it refers to the struggle between the human tendency to pursue inherent value and our inability to find any, “born out of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”, as Albert Camus once wrote. Consequently, contrary to the common interpretation, it does not mean a logically impossible state of affairs, but a humanly impossible one.
Perhaps nowhere in the working world is this absurdity on clearer display than in marketing. Unable to find human value in the Art of Making People Buy Stuff, marketers invent a supposed deeper meaning to what they do. Their brands are not mere mortal manufacturers of goods and services, oh no. They are purpose-led knights on a crusade to change the world for the better.
Sadly, this conveniently ignores that, well, they aren’t. Because, of course, the very same brands that claim to be protectors of fair maidens also tend to have castle-wide equality issues.
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Whatever you want to call it – greenwashing, whywashing, wokewashing – attempts to gain profit from social causes without investing in the time and resources needed to address the issues in meaningful ways are never well-received. We are all familiar with the infamous Pepsi commercial, once dubbed “the Donald Trump of advertising”, of course. But mind-crushingly poor purpose campaigns are by no means few and far between.
To promote inclusivity, South Korean fashion brand Stylenanda photoshopped a model’s hand black, including their palm . Nivea, which likes to talk about how it upholds family values and a sense of belonging, ran an ad with the rather supremacist-cuddly slogan “White is purity”. Supposed beacon of purpose-done-right Dove created a commercial that displayed “the diversity of real beauty” by having a black woman remove her shirt to become white, effectively evoking memories of a long-running racist trope in soap advertising. The list goes on. And on.
But these are all execution errors, I hear the marketing cognoscenti cry out in unison from their yachts in Cannes. What about purpose from a marketing strategic perspective?
Alas, more likely than not, no.
To quote David Ogilvy, a man in dire need of resurrection, consumers don't think how they feel. They don't say what they think and they don't do what they say. Humans have a propensity toward virtue signaling, answering when questioned what they believe to be “correct” regardless of whether or not they actually hold those values in practice. When it is their own money on the line, purchase patterns show it’s a different matter entirely; survey radicals turn into economic conservatives.
Furthermore, while social preferences undoubtedly are an inherent aspect of consumption, the causes that matters most on an individual level differ greatly. In order to appeal to as many of their potential buyers as possible, brands inevitably end up with a lowest common denominator. This, in turn, means that there is no differentiation, and rather than be voices for good, they become echoes of one another. From a positioning perspective, brand purpose becomes pointless.
Lastly, and perhaps most notably, the supposed evidence for brand purpose as an indicator for future success has been proven to be severely flawed and ostensibly a systemic delusion resulting in a halo effect. Though proponents often claim their views are based on rigorous research, they operate mainly on the level of storytelling.
In other words, brand purpose, absurdly, ultimately fails to provide the meaning that marketers chase.
This is all not to say that brand purpose cannot work. Marketing is never binary and, as a result, the only truly universal answer is “it depends”. For some companies, in some verticals, with some target audiences, brand purpose can undoubtedly yield positive outcomes. But it is by no means a prerequisite for profit, regardless of how many industry heavyweights on the Keith Weed bandwagon declare it to be.
We must all be very careful not to make the best the enemy of the good. Not every company must be purpose driven – and there is nothing wrong with that. It is not meaningless work to market a brand that “merely” pays its taxes and treats its stakeholders well. To claim otherwise would be absurd.
Particularly given how few supposedly purpose-driven companies do.
JP Hanson is the chief executive at international strategic consultancy firm Rouser and a marketing keynote speaker