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Is brand purpose simply too good to be true?

Thomas Kolster, the author of Goodvertising, knows a thing or two about brand purpose. Despite being one of its biggest advocates, however, he has come to the conclusion that purpose is a dying strategy. Here he tells us why.

When brands anxiously put on the purpose halo, it’s oftentimes too good to be true. The recent IPA research on the effectiveness of purposeful commercials is to dangle a desperate carrot in front of marketeers – saying ’it pays to care’. There’s a lot of pointing fingers at purpose. Brands are faced with a communication crisis, but it’s of their own making. Most purpose communications are only making matters worse. That said, I do get those advertising folks that feel the societal pressure and want to act – not react.

Purpose comes across as a broken record repeating a hallelujah chorus

If we are to talk about the effectiveness of purposeful commercials, we also have to address the wear-out effect or fatigue, as we’ve have witnessed with donor fatigue, for example. I’m witnessing an evolving post-purpose market, where every brand in the commercial break is pitching itself as a messiah, solving all the world’s ills. Are we to truly believe that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are suddenly growing a conscious?

According to a decade-long millennial and Gen Z study by Deloitte, it’s clear that young people increasingly distrust these efforts and are instead seeing themselves as the agents of change. Why would they believe anything else? In their lifetime, they’ve only experienced brands doing a lot of talking and making fancy pledges; but in their eyes, brands are fundamentally to blame for the climate emergency and social injustice.

What brand has created positive change in your life?

In a transparent, purist society, brands and the industry need to embrace a radically changing world order or face being exposed as nothing but screaming quacks selling snake oil – destined to be chased out of town. How do brands play their part in motivating people to live more sustainably? How can brands help people bridge the notorious gap between intent and action – and get them to choose more sustainable options?

The Deloitte study, and many other similar studies, hints at a solution: put people in charge. You’re not more liked as a brand because you claim a societal sainthood; you are more liked because you’re playing a meaningful role in people’s lives. Let me ask you one simple question: what brand has truly created positive change in your life? Think about it. People no longer buy what you say, what you do, or why you do it - they want to experience the difference.

Brands must stop the naval-gazing focus on how good they are and instead ask themselves: who can I help people become? Great leaders – like brands – grow people and help them achieve amazing things like becoming healthier, smarter, greener, happier.

From purpose preacher to life coach

I’m flawed. Most of what I promise myself to do, such as drink less or just remember to flick off the lights, I admittedly fail at miserably. Anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking can tell you. Your doctors can tell you to pack it in, your wife and kids can try to motivate you, ads on the packaging can try to scare you to quit, but at the end of the day you need to make that conscious decision yourself.

If we are to motivate people to create change, brands need to be less like a purpose preacher and more like a life coach. I don’t call these brands purposeful, but instead transformative, because they put the change in the hands of me and you. I commissioned a research with the Marketing University of Bari – not at all as substantial as that of the IPA, but more to test my thesis. I compared four purposeful commercials (believe in us as a brand to bring about change) with four transformative commercials (believe in your own ability to bring about change) and the transformative commercials were on average 29.6% better at motivating people and 29.4% were more likely to pay a premium price. Nike motivates me to go further (and I buy its apparel), while Chipotle talks about how good its food is for you (and the planet and the animals) and I press the skip button.

Change begins here

I’ve witnessed too much zigzagging from brands over the last decade – ’Great taste’, ’Great personality’, ’Great for the planet and people’ – bewildered, lost, confused about their role in life like a developing midlife crisis, where one believes purpose is the lifebuoy. If brands want to begin fixing the relationship with people, they ought to begin with that significant other: me and you.

With all my anxieties, shortfalls, dreams and ambitions, there are plenty of ways brands can play a meaningful role. Saving the planet might be too big a task for a deodorant, or even for a pair of Khaki shorts with a Patagonia logo. Let’s not point fingers at purpose, it’s flawed as we are, but let’s go to work and live life with a belief that tomorrow is going to be a little bit better than yesterday. Then – just then – change might happen.

Thomas Kolster is an internationally-recognized marketing and sustainability expert, author of the books Goodvertising and The Hero Trap and a keynote speaker.

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