Over the past decade, the purpose movement has failed to deliver either as effective marketing or as a driver of actual social impact. There is a better way, says Nick Asbury, a creative writer for branding and design, and author of a new book, The Road to Hell.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, says the English proverb. For the past decade, there have been lots of good intentions in the business and marketing worlds – sometimes sincerely held, sometimes less so.

All of them have been channelled into the idea of ‘purpose’. The theory is that customers, especially younger customers, are demanding that brands embrace progressive causes, and the brands who do so will be rewarded in the marketplace. In the seductively win-win worldview of purpose, businesses can ‘do well by doing good’ – driving positive social change while profiting from customers who care about these causes.

As I argue in my book The Road to Hell, the reality hasn’t panned out that way. Instead, branding has become an elaborate game of trying to connect your product to a cause that can never quite fit, in a way that reliably leads to worse marketing and – more importantly – worse social outcomes.

Why worse marketing?

Because purpose pushes brands towards sameness. In search of its ‘why’, every company climbs a ladder of abstraction and eventually loses all connection with its day-to-day product, becoming yet another version of ‘We’re here to make the world a better place’.

Because purpose pushes brands towards grandiosity and weak positioning. It asks brands to draw a connection between their product and a wider social good that is always likely to be a stretch – and leads to worse PR blowback every time you inevitably misstep.

Because purpose centres the brand, not the customer. Everything becomes about trying to work out your ‘why’ and your ‘values’. But customers have values and purposes of their own, as do employees. Those values are vastly diverse – forget your purpose and think about theirs.

Because purpose is built on a misguided reading of what customers ‘really’ want. There is no evidence that customers of any age group are united behind brands embracing progressive causes. If that were the case, why have the past ten years seen Western societies split down the middle on questions ranging from Brexit to Trump? Why are 46% of 18-34-year-old voters planning to vote Trump over 42% for Biden? Why are supposedly purposeful Gen Z employees embracing trends like quiet quitting and lazy girl jobs, even as their employers proclaim their social missions?

Even if the politics and polls were different, what evidence is there that any of this affects buying decisions? Whatever people say in loosely worded surveys, we know from the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and others that people barely think about brands, let alone their ‘purposes’. Look around at everything in your home or office: the carpet, the desk lamp, the laptop, the coffee, the building insurer, the socks you’re wearing, the washing powder you washed them with – how many came from earnest considerations of the political positions of each brand?

But what if purpose did help shift product?

In that case, we should be even more worried. Because the true measure of purpose should always be the societal impact it delivers. And the evidence is not good.

Purpose dilutes the commercial effectiveness of marketing, which is bad for business and bad for the economy. Marketing is supremely useful if it keeps decent businesses afloat and economies ticking. Failed purpose campaigns are not just marketing stories – they’re stories about people all the way down the supply chain losing jobs and incomes.

Purpose creates social division by shrinking the common ground, just when we need it most. Whatever their differences, Biden and Trump supporters should be able to unite over a Bud, or share a bag of M&Ms, or kick back and watch a Disney movie. But now buying any of those brands says something about your place on the political spectrum. Brands didn’t get caught in the culture wars – purpose pushed them into the firing line.

Purpose leads to ‘noble cause corruption’ – a phenomenon of behavioural psychology first studied in police departments. Once you convince yourself you’re on the side of ‘good’, it becomes paradoxically easier to justify any means towards that end. Purposeful Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, started with why and ended up in a Texas jail. Effective altruist Sam Bankman-Fried met a similar fate.

On a smaller scale, thousands of businesses make ethical mistakes by looking for win-wins when the truth is that doing the right thing will often come at a cost. ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something’ said adman Bill Bernbach in 1971. That’s a better slogan to pin above your desk than ‘Do well by doing good’.

Most fundamentally, purpose undermines the not-for-profit and public sectors, where so much actually purposeful work takes place. How long must we endure this social bargain where ‘do good’ messages come with a deodorant or detergent logo attached? Where the job of the marketer is to master the dismount at the end of another tear-jerking ad to link the story, however tenuously, to their brand? Think maternal health, think Maltesers. Think girls’ mental health, think Dove. Think Pride, think Skittles.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The case I make in my book isn’t a cynical one – it’s an idealistic pushback against the cynicism that pervades our industry, where so many people feel quietly uncomfortable with the moral grandstanding that comes from all the wrong places. To pick a timely example, what right do judges have to ignore the criteria in creative awards schemes and impose their own ‘we need to send the right signal’ ethical agenda? It’s an unethical way to treat paying entrants, and a disservice to the commercial creativity on which our industry, and most of the judges’ salaries, depend.

There is another way

In my book, I argue for an alternative that involves ditching the hubris in favour of humour, humility and humanity. I make the case for cognitive empathy – the skill of being able to see other points of view, even if you don’t agree with them. That should be a core skill for all marketers, both client and agency side. It was severely lacking in Apple’s recent ‘crush all good things’ debacle, where they somehow failed to see how it would read to most non-Apple people.

Most of all, I make the case for creativity, which in so many ways is the opposite of purpose. It comes from an open mindset, rather than being narrowly goal-driven. It often only makes sense in retrospect, which is why so many companies struggle to find their ‘why’ and go through contortions to retrofit something onto a reality that never happened that way. Purpose didn’t create most of the great brands and ads. Creativity did.

The way forward involves redirecting the good intentions behind purpose into ideas that make sense, both ethically and commercially. Drop the purpose word. Talk about ethics, humanity, humour, humility, cognitive empathy, creativity, commercial effectiveness, non-profit effectiveness.

Let’s see where that road leads.


Theres more on the WARC podcast where Nick unpacks purpose with author and marketing activist Thomas Kolster: 

Listen on Apple: https://loom.ly/vtIfmFY

Listen on Spotify: https://loom.ly/1XHQwHo