Purpose has gained something of a reputation in marketing as merely window dressing. But Freya Williams of Futerra North America argues that this interpretation ignores the fundamental shift throughout the business world.

Which brand are you boycotting this week? It likely depends which side of the political spectrum you’re on. And what’s going on in the news cycle.

2017 has been an unusually volatile year for brands more used to an operating environment that adhered to the old adage that business and politics don’t mix. Brands as varied as coffee machine company Keurig, car sharing service Uber, American Football League the NFL and outdoor gear company LL Bean are among the brands who’ve found themselves in the crosshairs of a furious partisan hashtag campaign on social media over the past 12 months. 

#boycottkeurig was trending as we penned this piece following the company’s decision to pull its ads from Fox News presenter Sean Hannity’s show over his apparent defense of Alabama Republican candidate Roy Moore’s alleged history of sexual assault. Other fans have posted videos of their burning NFL merchandise as a protest against what they see as the League’s support of player Colin Kapernick’s #takeaknee movement to raise awareness of police brutality against black Americans. In February, hundreds of thousands deleted the ride-sharing app Uber from their phones, disapproving of how the company responded to President Trump’s proposed immigration bans early in his presidency. The list goes on.

It’s tempting to chalk these outbursts up to an unprecedented election cycle, particularly in the deeply divided US; to cling to the assumption that this is all a temporary glitch that will simmer down when we return to something resembling politics as usual (whenever that’s meant to happen). But those of us who’ve been working at the intersection of business and sustainability or purpose for some time recognize this as something different; it's the acceleration and intensification of a long term trend that’s been brewing for a decade or more. It’s the coming of age of the purpose-driven consumer and the purpose-driven brand, and in this age, no one can stay out of the fray for very long. Scary though the prospect may be, it is time to get off the sidelines.

The Purpose era

There is nothing faddish about purpose. Purpose is nothing more or less than the next incarnation of brand. We began with brands built on rational benefits. Then came emotional benefits. Brand purpose is next. It’s what happens when business - and brands - grow up.

As with all things new, purpose has been going through some teething problems. Spats like the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner commercial are proof of that. This movement is still nascent. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that the rise of purpose is inexorable.

Over the next few years, all brand owners and their agencies will have to come to terms with this new reality. It will mean a complete redesign of the way we do things and the tools we use, from the brand keys and brand pyramids to positioning concepts and reasons to believe. 

More than anything it will require understanding that purpose is not about marketing; not really. It’s about business; and the battle for the soul of business being waged right now.

The moment we are in is not just a seismic shift in marketing. It’s a seismic shift in business. We’re undergoing a collective re-evaluation of a fundamental question: why does business exist? Increasingly the answer we’re coming back with is something much more profound than creating shareholder value. We’re understanding that business exists - or can, and should, exist - to solve social problems. Purpose is really an exercise in answering that most fundamental question of all: why does my business exist? Why are we here? And, in our view, which social or environmental problem does my business exist to solve?

Obviously that’s a question that’s bigger than any ad campaign. It is an agenda for business transformation.

Consider these examples:

  • Tesla’s purpose is to help expedite the move from a mine and burn hydrocarbon economy to a solar-electric economy
  • Ikea’s purpose is to create a better everyday life for the many people
  • Unilever’s purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace.

These purpose statements guide everything these companies do – not just everything they say – from how they source their raw materials to the innovation they drive, to the services they provide, the goals they set and, yes, how they market. Everything is in service to the purpose.

Crucially, it’s not just about doing good - and this is a key difference between “true” purpose and its imitators, along with its kissing cousins, CSR and cause marketing. In true purpose-driven organizations, purpose is not just about where you spend, save or donate money. It’s central to how you make it. These companies are making money by solving social or environmental problems – billions of dollars of money, in a growing number of cases. Indeed, a growing body of evidence shows purpose-driven companies are more profitable than those that pursue profit alone. Call it the purpose paradox.

But to get there, to communicate purpose with conviction, business must first earn the right. The strategy and action must come first. Without the solid foundation of real, hardworking change, purpose is just hot air. Logic must come before magic.

As marketers, this means taking a fresh approach. It means forging new partnerships with your sustainability and CSR teams to deeply understand the major issues that your business and brand can solve, and your category’s major positive and negative impacts. It means committing to bold goals and a robust plan to deliver, and only then translating those into symbols and stories your employees, stakeholders and consumers can get behind.

We’ve been asked many times over the years whether every brand can – or indeed – should – have a purpose. The answer is yes. We live in complex times and business can and must lead the change. Some of the most compelling purpose campaigns of the past 18 months have come from a washing machine manufacturer, a maker of women’s hygiene products and a home cleaning brand. If they can do it, anyone can. Even though it may seem risky in today’s hyper-partisan times.

The truth is that doing nothing is not an option, either. And as consumers are increasingly able to choose between purpose-driven and plain old brands, they will increasingly select the ones that align with their values while their conventional counterparts fade away.

The age of purpose is upon is. And while faddish purpose risks dying a swift death, true purpose it here to stay. Evolve or risk irrelevance.

Read more on this topic in the WARC’s Toolkit 18 chapter: Redefining purpose.