Debunking Purpose

This article was originally published as an article on The Message website. To view the original article, click here.

I recently attended a “global digital summit” for marketers that was, frankly, a bit of a horror show.

Aside from the tech glitches, the artificial environment of holding roundtables with no tables and trying to meet other professionals without being able to break bread together, there was a theme that ran through the conference that excited and inspired me, at first: Purpose.

All through the three days, the “P” word was used again and again, by agency leaders, senior marketers, consultants. As though they had all caught the bug, as it were, and were spreading it around. 

But the moment we entered any serious conversation on the topic, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there was no there, there.” It was largely empty rhetoric. No one had a coherent definition of brand purpose or purpose-driven marketing. There were few case studies or examples of people doing it well, or doing it with any depth. 

So where do we go from here? And why are we even talking about this?

Well, let’s start by solving one problem: defining the term itself.

Back in 2003, when I helped launch a cause marketing and social responsibility practice at WPP, that word had not yet been used in marketing. Instead, we talked about “meaning,” as in, human beings are always searching for meaning behind what they do, and that applies equally to what they buy and where they spend their time. 

We called it “the marketplace of meaning,” and we helped our clients find the meaning behind their brand.

More recently, investment firms such as BlackRock have used the expressions “contribution to society” and “bringing value to human society through your products, services and operations” (rather than just through philanthropy). 

In fact, an increasing number of global investment firms are starting to make it mandatory for companies in which they invest to find a real purpose if they are to continue attracting investment.

But sometimes it’s easier to talk about what something is not, before you talk about what it is:

Purpose is not:

  • A COVID campaign that tells consumers what makes a brand relevant during the pandemic
  • A brand campaign with soft piano music and a gentle voiceover telling people, “We’re here for you” and “We’re all in this together”
  • A heritage campaign talking about your time-honoured origin story and values as a brand
  • A corporate contribution to a cause or philanthropy (you should be doing this anyway as a good corporate citizen; it’s table stakes)

If these examples do not constitute purpose, then what does? In the next half of the article, my colleague Chris Dacyshyn, Co-Executive Creative Director at Bleublancrouge, gives her take on what purpose can be.

– Wahn Yoon
President & Co-founder, Bleublancrouge Toronto

One creative’s opinion on purpose

I believe a brand is purpose-led when it becomes the devoted champion of a societal belief or unmet need that is a natural extension of its own DNA

In some ways, purpose is what a brand really should have been concentrating on all along, besides providing a service or good.

While inventing, shaping and guiding purpose-driven platforms like Nike Women’s, the Dove Self-Esteem Project and Campaign for Real Beauty, Hellmann’s Real Food Movement and Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged, I have discovered that purpose is not an exact science. Nor is it for everyone. Skittles and ShamWow, for instance, will likely never be in the market for a purpose-driven campaign.

But, for those brands that successfully find their purpose, there’s no going back. In fact, I’m convinced the entire world will never go back. Purpose is here to stay because consumers have had a taste of it. And now, they demand it.

Study after study has shown that brands with purposeful conviction significantly outperform their purpose-less counterparts. And yet, we often hear agencies being dismissive of purpose because it’s an overused marketing strategy. But isn’t that kind of like saying we’re going to stop focusing on profit because it’s an overused strategy? Or we’re going to abandon our pursuit of quality products because everyone’s doing it?

The best creative agencies can help identify purpose, bring it to the surface, shape it into something wonderful and shout it from the rooftops with great conviction. But purpose can’t be entirely invented and brought to bear by an agency the way that ad constructs can. It’s up to brands to live and breathe their purpose before – and long after – the agency comes along.

When Nike did Dream Crazy with Colin Kaepernick, it didn’t just come out of nowhere. Nike had long been supporting diversity through their athletes. Patagonia is “in business to save our home planet.” But this isn’t something their agency pulled out of a hat. It’s something Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has believed in all his life.

Patagonia, Nike and all successful purposeful brands recognize that they must regularly reinforce their commitment with meaningful deeds – not just words. They also recognize it is almost impossible to walk away from their commitment, because brand loyalists would feel betrayed. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.

Does purpose always have to be about social consciousness? I don’t think so. One of my favourite examples from over 120 years ago is the Michelin Guide. A tire company not only invented the idea of travelling for pleasure (while wearing out tires), it championed the importance of experiencing the wider world around us.

Today, virtually every talk-worthy brand that’s being born has purpose at its core. The entire world is being held accountable for its actions, and brands are no exception. It’s about time.

As a creative, it always feels good to win awards. But winning awards while helping brands make a purposeful contribution to the world feels so much better.

– Chris Dacyshyn
Co-Executive Creative Director, Bleublancrouge Toronto