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Do consumers think brand purpose is bullshit?

By Ali Demos, Group planning director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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February 3, 2020 | 7 min read

Studies have been fielded, and the results are in: only 27% of US consumers can name a purpose-driven brand, according to the new Purpose Power Index. Yet we also know that profits are boosted by purpose. Our visionary business leaders are clear on this point: in 2019, The Business Roundtable of 181 leading CEOs signed a declaration, putting 'purpose over profits'. According to Larry Fink of BlackRock, profits aren’t sustainable without purpose. Taking it a step further, Elon Musk doesn’t see the point of spending time on anything except the uber-purpose of accelerating a sustainable future.

purpose washing

So what’s going on here? Purpose has been shown to grow and transform companies, yet that potential is wildly underleveraged. How do we understand the current state of play?

The Pepsi debacle provides an important clue; a cautionary tale for brands hoping to jump on the purpose bandwagon in a hurry. Indeed, success with Purpose is far from assured - in no small part because, as brands deal in emotion, story-telling, and inspiration, they are subject to the same human B.S. meters that we use on people.

In real life, we have plenty of skepticism for big talkers. We’re wise to empty promises, hollow words, and pie in the sky. We try to steer clear of people who talk a good game or build castles in the air. Is it a coincidence that the phrase “campaign promises” can be applied to both untrustworthy political candidates and untrustworthy brands?

The big issue CEOs, CMOs, HR VPs, and other leaders face is activating Purpose while avoiding these minefields. I see this every day in my role at StrawberryFrog, where we specialize in creating movements that activate purpose inside companies, both internally with employees, and externally, to grow brands with consumers.

In fact, when brands articulate a purpose, they’ve taken the first of 1000 steps toward making it real. The bulk of the work lies ahead, in transforming an abstract statement into tangible commitments and actions. And even then, all purpose work will meet same skeptical audience (us) that reads a brand’s intentions the way we read a candidate’s: if they’re not quickly embodied in action, or if they don’t smell right, they will be quickly dismissed.

So keep an eye out for these common pitfalls when approaching the Purpose task.

Your purpose is at the wrong altitude

This is about selecting the right playing field – one your brand is comfortable in. Is your brand doing something extraordinary at its core? Does your executive board err on the side of practicality? Do you have a visionary CEO? Does your brand touch users in a daily way? These considerations may help brands place themselves along a spectrum from functional to higher order purposes.

And higher isn’t necessarily better: Google has a purpose that connects directly with the functional job the brand does. It’s a wonderful example of a 'ground-floor' purpose: “to organize the world’s information, and make it universally accessible.”

For brands flying in the middle of the altitude spectrum, the focus may be on a benefit the brand provides – how it improves our lives. Starbucks flies at this altitude with its purpose: “To inspire and nourish the human spirit, one cup, one person, and one neighborhood at a time.”

And Tesla flies up there at 30,000 feet, focused as the brand is on its role in society: ushering in a sustainable future.

There is no right way to answer this question, no 'correct' altitude to fly at, but there is probably a right answer for every brand, based on how the brand carries itself in the minds of those who keep the flame. This is a question worth tackling early on in a Purpose conversation.

It’s generic to the category (or just generic)

There are more finance brands than you can shake a stick at with purposes that sound something like, “to help clients achieve their goals / pursue the best outcomes for clients / in service of clients’ success.” By definition, this idea can’t be used to build a brand purpose, because it’s the reason for being of the entire financial services category.

The key purpose question for this sector would be: you are in the banking / investing / lending business, along with thousands of other banks, investment firms, and lenders. Why does your brand exist? What is your unique mission? Beware a purpose that sounds just like everyone else’s.

It’s tone-deaf to the real issues your customers are facing

Just as it’s important to fly at an altitude that’s right for your brand, it’s equally important to meet a real need in the world your customers inhabit. For example, it may be counter-productive to offer inspiration or entertainment to consumers who struggle with crippling debt. Or to offer a “pink” promise to customers focused on equality. Make sure you’ve got an ear to the ground regarding what your customers care about and how they spend their most valuable resource – their attention.

It lacks a connection to the brand's DNA

Pasting on a purpose is nearly always a losing proposition, especially if it doesn’t align with the brand personality and history that consumers have come to know you by. This one can be easily tested with a hypothetical tweet: if your brand could voice a purpose on Twitter and not be drowned out by the haters, it just may pass the bar.

It’s “purpose-washing”

This risk may be highest in touchy industries where the public is on alert regarding critiques of the category. In a misguided bid for immunity, skittish brands may look for a competitive edge with counter-intuitive (not to say counter-factual) purpose gestures designed to appease or distract. Think: Big Meat suddenly caring about the environment. Or Big Energy talking about wind turbines. Or Big Timber cherishing trees. These gambits will often be subjected to a high level of scrutiny, and can wind up collapsing under that pressure.

It doesn’t inspire employees

Even the most brilliantly crafted Brand Purpose will have a tremendous hill to climb without the advocacy of employees who are, in truth, its front-line. By contrast, an inspiring, authentic purpose is worth its weight in gold in terms of all the key staff metrics, from employee satisfaction and retention, to cost per recruit. When a Purpose ignites the people-power locked in your employees, there’s no telling what it can do out in the world.

It doesn’t get activated

A chick that never fledges. A horse that doesn’t leave the gate. A raisin in the sun. You get the idea. So get out there and activate!

Ali Demos, group planning director, StrawberryFrog


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StrawberryFrog is the world’s first Movement Marketing firm. We are a marketing, advertising, design and digital company based in New York City. Brand-fueled marketing...

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