The real debate around “purpose-driven” marketing isn’t whether it should be or not.

It actually isn’t a debate at all: it’s us, as an industry, struggling with a word’s definition.

The word “purpose” has a meaning. It is not “to embrace a social cause” as the idea of “brand purpose” suggests. Its definition: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” No ambiguity here.

And frankly, no debate either: of course brands should be driven by their reasons to be!

The Future of Strategy 2020

This article is part of WARC's The Future of Strategy report, which is based on a global survey of senior strategists and in 2020 focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on strategy.

Read the full report

A perfect storm made out of wishful-thinking-enabled-sloppiness got us all confused.

“Marketers are ashamed to be marketers” argues prof. Mark Ritson. He’s not wrong. Read Tom Roach’s recent blog on the topic. He writes at length about advertising’s long history of being viewed as “deceitful, […] of little or no positive value to society.”

You’ll recognize yourself. That longing for more which usually strikes while sitting through rounds of feedback or while having drinks with that friend who’s a doctor or works for a non-profit.

We were (and continue to be) the perfect targets: eager to embrace Simon Sinek’s “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. In his book “Grow”, Jim Stengel’s found that brands pursuing a larger cause-related ideal (beyond profits) experience extraordinary growth. To this day, Stengel’s data is referenced as the irrefutable argument for “brand purpose”. Well, do me (and frankly, yourself) a favour: google “Richard Shotton” and “brand purpose”. Learn how Stengel’s methodology is riddled with flawed logic, inaccurate data and gross approximations. Industry heavyweights from Byron Sharp to Rob Campbell all agree: the way “brand purpose” is currently understood doesn’t hold the test of rigour.

The evidence is out there, and has been for a while. Still, the “brand purpose” bandwagon is full to the brim. It overflows with industry reports, business offerings, keynote addresses at conferences and passionate speeches by your teammates. And we keep drinking the Kool-Aid by the bucket. Because we want it to be true.

Most of the time, it’s a blatant lie.

The thing is, Pepsi isn’t about social justice. Ikea isn’t about bullying. Whirpool isn’t about poverty and inner city education.

A brands’ purpose – the true meaning of the word – lies where it is ready to bet big. “Your purpose isn’t your purpose if it doesn’t cost you a lot of money” is a truth someone I can’t retrace (apologies) has truthfully said. Except a handful of examples (Toms shoes, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, etc.) and non-profits, most brands do not have a social purpose at their core. Pretending otherwise is dishonest, deceitful, and honestly, wasteful at the very least (and potentially dangerous for the brand). 

“Brand purpose” fails at doing what it supposedly is meant to do: differentiate.

Just a few months ago, we took stock and collectively face-palmed at the barrage of undifferentiated COVID-19 responses ads. “We’re all in this together”, uttered every brand, from automotive to retail to beer, over soft piano tunes and footage of empty streets and frontline workers.

Creating ads around a cause might feel like a great idea to differentiate in a crowded category. Especially for brands who’ve long lost sight of their “founder’s intent” (read Zeb Barrett, Head of Strategy at Art & Mechanical, on the topic) and are fighting against the currents of commoditization.

However, nothing looks more alike than two brands advocating for the same cause. Especially as neither is committed enough (because it isn’t their true purpose) to own it.

Your real brand purpose is more than sufficient.

The idea of “brand purpose” is a great story. The type of stuff we crave: a formula, the promise of certainty. “If this then that”: the stuff of software and robots, not humans.

Something we should’ve known better than to believe, as supposed experts of human behaviour...  But it was too appealing to resist: we want it to be true.

Every brand does seek to improve people’s lives, but it’s usually because they aim at satisfying an unmet consumer need (or do a better job than the competition at it).

That’s it. And that’s fine: there’s no shame in owning your reason to be! Look at Beats by Dre and their work around “focus”. Look at Under Armour and all their work around “work”. Look at Fanta with their “It’s a thing” campaign, or recently “Idiots are amazing”. Look at Jeep’s “Anti-manifesto”.

And yes, look at Dove’s work around “real beauty”, or Nike’s work around what it means to be an athlete.

Enough of our time and energy (and sadly, of our client’s money) has been spent into the folly that has become “brand purpose”. This needs to stop.

As an industry, how we talk about “purpose” needs to be recalibrated away from its current generic cause-related meaning, to what it has – and should’ve – always been: actual “reasons to be”. We need to accept that it is enough: that a brand’s (perhaps) functional role is adequate, capable of making a difference in the market and generate positive returns.

You should be purpose-driven: the real meaning of purpose.