Brand purpose. The biggest lie the ad industry ever told?

I was asked recently to give a talk answering the question ‘does brand purpose really drive profit?’. My very short answer to it was ‘yes it can, but mostly it probably doesn’t’.

And the slightly longer answer to it was ‘it really depends, but on balance brand purpose is over-used in marketing today and its power over-stated, and it’s actually best used as a business tool by companies that are genuinely committed to conscious capitalism, rather than as a bolt-on by marketing teams looking for a quick sales fix’.

I suspect no robust data analysis will ever prove conclusively that it’s better for brands to be ‘purposeful’ than for them not to be. By cherry-picking case studies, you could probably make whatever argument you wanted for or against it: whether that’s highlighting examples that show purpose can drive profit or by cherry-picking examples of brands getting it wrong, in order to suggest it can’t. Or if you want to undermine the whole concept of purpose entirely, pointing to brands pretending to be purposeful, or even highlighting the many highly successful non-purposeful brands.

So it’s quite easy to cherry-pick examples to make whatever case you want. In fact one of the people who made purpose so popular in business and marketing was ex-P&G Global Marketing Officer, Jim Stengel, whose book, ‘Grow’, was founded on essentially a big cherry-picking exercise where he took the top 50 performing brands on a measure of brand strength and claimed that what linked them, and so accounted for their success, was that they all had a brand ideal to make the world a better place in some way – I recommend you look up Richard Shotton’s article and talks on this as he rips apart the data behind Stengel’s book in a way that I’m not going to do justice to. But it’s a very compelling case.

I will pick two cherries of my own though just to show you I’m not actually a purpose sceptic, just a sceptic of certain types of supposedly ‘purposeful’ brand communications. A personal favourite example is Timpsons, a UK shoe repair chain, who do amazing work employing ex-prisoners, and repeatedly get listed as one of the top 10 best companies to work for. They don’t even use the word ‘purpose’, and you’ll never see them running empowering TV ads humbly bragging about the good they do, but by most definitions they look pretty purposeful. An example close to me is Barclays, which has been on a journey of internal transformation since the Libor scandal, that has helped it discover for itself a more positive role in society via fantastic initiatives like Digital Eagles and LifeSkills. Barclays saw a return on investment from its advertising about these societal initiatives far stronger than the ROI for ads talking about current accounts and mortgages. It’s a kind of marketing alchemy that Barclays ‘purpose-led’ advertising about them helping young people with job interview techniques sold hundreds of millions of pounds worth of mortgages. That’s clearly a win-win. But for every Barclays, there’s a handful of other brands with pseudo-purposeful ad campaigns that are clearly just cynical attempts to jump on board a societal issue in order to grab some headlines and turn around flagging sales.

So overall I think there are probably 3 broad types of brands that define themselves as having a purpose that we see in the marketing world. Imagine three concentric circles containing three types. At the bullseye we see brands that are Born Purposeful, often founder-led, often small, niche, usually founded with a societal purpose and where purpose goes across the whole business operation. Toms and Patagonia are perhaps the most often-cited examples of this. No one ever seems to argue about brands like this – very clear purposes, and business models designed to balance purpose and profit. In the middle concentric circle we see a second type, which tend to be Corporate Converts – often larger businesses which have adopted the concept of purpose more recently. They usually seem to genuinely want to make a positive difference to the world alongside making money, sometimes to correct past wrongs or just to become a better corporate citizen. They’re by definition on a journey of transforming themselves and are often more complex businesses, and because of that they may have to make pragmatic decisions that favour profit over purpose in certain instances. They may not have a business model that’s built around their purpose. They may have certain voices internally who are more committed to their purpose than others, and they’re likely not to have a founder present who’s committed to keeping the business permanently in line with its purpose in all its decision-making. So they’re naturally a greyer area. Purpose often becomes a new type of business vision or Northstar for these kinds of brands – they will typically need to find a space at the top of their strategy pyramid for their new purpose.

And there’s a third kind, on the outer circle, which I would call Pseudo-purposeful brands – these are the ones for which purpose is just a new ad campaign claiming to try and solve an issue like gender or racial equality, or toxic masculinity or whatever the most resonant topic is that their social listening data says is trending with their demographic that month. This is the kind of purpose that’s least likely to become embedded across every function of a business, it was probably cooked up in the marketing department, and so is far less likely to take root within an entire organisation, be taken seriously and gain long-term investment. And so it’s far less likely to be profitable in the long-term.

So there are probably three types of purposeful brand: 1. Brands that are Born Purposeful, 2. The Corporate Converts, 3. The Pseudo-purposeful brands doing what’s recently been labelled ‘woke advertising’. And the likelihood of purpose driving a profit probably decreases from type 1 to 3.

And whilst it’s fairly obvious that, like most things, brand purpose sits on a spectrum, the debates about purpose in marketing always seem to be hugely divided, with the industry’s biggest beasts all coming down firmly on one side or the other. Unilever’s Keith Weed and Tesco’s Dave Lewis are believers. But two of marketing’s most well-known Professors, Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson are non-believers, who tend to see marketing’s obsession with purpose as a sign that marketers have lost confidence and pride in their core task – to sell.

The simplest, most no-nonsense view, is this, expressed by Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who when asked about brand purpose said simply: “A brand’s purpose is to sell stuff.”

Mark Ritson, says this: “Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s…they were founded with purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit.” Ritson tends to see Purpose, with some specific exceptions, as bad marketing practice, unlikely to lead to brand differentiation and lacking in relevance for most consumers. He sees most purpose marketing as failing to help brands create relevant differentiation, help them stand out from the crowd in a way that motivates consumers. He also attacks purpose as a layer of bullshit applied to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible consumers. Writing about Starbucks he said this: Time and again we encounter the lofty, admirable sheen of brand purpose only to discover it flakes off with even the slightest scratch to reveal a darker, more commercial sub-surface beneath. Starbucks’ famous mission ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time’ is about as lofty as it gets. But it contradicts mightily the company’s abject inability to align its tax responsibilities accordingly”.

Byron Sharp not only sees deception and duplicity going on with marketing’s obsession with Purpose – but also spots something a bit deeper – a level of self-deception, even self-loathing going on here amongst marketers. He says “[Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff. I think that’s terrible. If marketers don’t stand up for marketing, who will?

Very few people in marketing seem to disagree with the importance of brand purpose when the examples cited are companies built on progressive business models that successfully share the proceeds of growth in order to help alleviate a societal problem. But when advertising becomes a significant part of the conversation about purpose, things tend to go awry. In fact, my view is that if being purposeful means doing ads to you, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

So that’s where I stand. But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where brand purpose became simultaneously the most pervasive yet divisive concept in marketing? How can we explain the rise and dominance of brand purpose in early 21st century marketing?

My answer to that last question is this.

The dominance of brand purpose in marketing is perhaps the inevitable consequence of advertising people being told by everyone else, for about 150 years now, that they’re liars. That what they do is deceitful, that it’s of little or no positive value to society, that it doesn’t matter. Constantly hearing this view has helped give many advertising people a feeling of self-doubt about the role they play in society.

An Ipsos-Mori poll from 2018 found that ad execs are the least trusted profession in the UK, with only 18% of respondents saying they trust ad execs to tell the truth. That’s worse than estate agents, journalists, even politicians. A long-running study with over six decades of data, suggests that around 70% of the public tend to see advertising as untruthful – and that this number has stayed more or less stable for all of that time. This tallies with a finding from the Advertising Association that trust in the ad industry overall was around 30% in 2018.

And my theory is that perhaps advertising people have subconsciously sought in response – through their eager adoption of the concept of brand purpose – to prove they can be of value to society and that their work can do some good. The great irony here being that a response which has resulted in advertising people pretending, for example, that a brand of carbonated sugar water can solve some of society’s biggest issues, will actually have the opposite of the intended consequence: most of the pseudo-purposeful advertising out there just makes ad people and their output seem even more deceitful.

Advertising people have always sought to present themselves as respectable, responsible corporate citizens in the face of the strong suspicion that they’re not. You only have to look at the agency names DDB, BBDO, WPP, Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson, to see agencies trying to present themselves as respectable, professional people, to sound like lawyers or accountants. David Ogilvy’s schtick was to present himself as the refined aristocrat of advertising amongst the sharks and hucksters of New York. Despite or even because of the legalistic name, the New York agency BBDO, was nicknamed, by none other than President Harry S Truman, as ‘Bunco, Bull, Deceipt and Obfuscation’. Bill Bernbach built his agency DDB’s reputation on the idea that he was selling ‘the truth wrapped in wit’, in order to stand out against the deceitful salesmanship expected of the time, with ads that themselves told extreme versions of the truth like ‘Lemon’ for the VW Beetle.

‘The Adman’s Dilemma – from Barnum to Trump’ is a fascinating book by the cultural historian Paul Rutherford, which for me goes some way to explain why advertising has always been and remains one of the least trusted professions, and why advertising is seen by so many as a kind of licensed deception. It chronicles the prevailing anti-advertising cultural narrative since advertising’s early days in the mid-19th century from PT Barnum right up to the present day. Rutherford starts with Barnum whose skill deceiving a gullible public helped him achieve a reputation as the king of false advertising, ‘the uber-Huckster’.

Rutherford’s book chronicles the public outcry, and subsequent regulatory response, to the advertising of the patent medicine moguls in the US – who for several decades from around the 1880’s used mass communication to deceitfully claim their medicines could cure people of almost every medical problem. The most famous patent medicine born in this era of course being Coca Cola which was introduced in 1886.

The book goes on to discuss how the 1950’s and 60’s saw one of the most famous moments in the anti-advertising movement when a series of bestsellers including ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ by journalist Vance Packard caused a moral panic about the nefarious and deceitful psychological techniques supposedly being used by the newly ubiquitous TV advertisers. There are clear parallels I think between the scares of the ‘50’s and the scares we have now about the use of our personal data by Facebook as well as the use of psychometric targeting for political advertising in elections. Whatever side you’re on in the debate about Facebook, the demonization of Mark Zuckerberg clearly has parallels with this trope of the adman as public manipulator and arch-deceiver.

Perhaps the most relevant anti-advertising episode for a discussion about brand purpose is Naomi Klein’s 1999 global bestseller ‘No Logo’. Klein’s book was an unashamedly anti-capitalist attack on the negative societal impact of advertising, which pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the global brands appropriating social and moral values whilst also engaging in questionable employment and environmental practices, in a fore-shadowing of the critiques of some of today’s more obviously pseudo-purposeful advertising.

By highlighting some of the worse behaviour of global brands, No Logo played its role in subsequent efforts by big businesses to clean up their acts and become good corporate citizens. Which in turn is leading to many businesses becoming more purposeful and taking on the philosophy that’s now called conscious capitalism.

To Rutherford, Mad Men’s Don Draper is the archetypal sufferer of the ‘adman’s dilemma’, of whom he says ‘whatever success he found, he found his life empty, hollow, he searched for some experience more real, more authentic’, and quotes Don Draper’s Stepfather saying to him “You’re a bum, what do you do, what do you make? You grow bullshit.”

So given the way advertising has always been portrayed in culture, it’s not hard to see why ad people would jump at the chance to show they’re respectable professionals whose work can have a positive impact on society. But in choosing to jump so fulsomely onto the brand purpose bandwagon we may just be making matters worse for ourselves.

When what we really need to do to prove our value to society, is to prove our commercial value first and foremost – to have pride in the value we create and so demonstrate the role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forwards. There’s plenty of genuine virtue to be had in that.

In the final scene of the final episode of Mad Men, we see Don Draper meditating on a clifftop, and as if in a eureka moment in his meditative state, we cut to the famous 1971 Coke ad ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. So we see a fictionalised advertising genius dreaming up a real celebration of peace, love and harmony, an idealised depiction of hippie culture, and appropriating it for a genuine commercial for the world’s most famous and valuable brand. It’s a fittingly brilliant blend of fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice.

It’s simply the most perfect ending for the show to have Don Draper, the archetypal, self-deceiving adman, whilst himself searching for a more authentic, more purposeful existence, dreaming up for a brand of carbonated sugar water, what may well have been the Patient Zero of all the pseudo-purposeful advertising that would follow in the decades ahead.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect representation of advertising’s complex and uneasy relationship with truth, lies and brand purpose.

24 replies on “Brand purpose. The biggest lie the ad industry ever told?”

Purpose is indeed Total Bullshit. Except in one case (not the case you mention above, of the brand being born and genuinely purposeful: most of those still fail). Purpose only works when it makes the brand Distinctive. Dove works because it’s Distinctive, not because it’s purposeful (Byron talks about getting additional shelf space, but that’s BS too). The advertising is quite Distinctive. I saw a study that showed something like 80% of people recognized the style of models used by Dove, but less that 40% could correctly attribute the line “Real Beauty.” Anyway, nice piece!

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Really thoughtful piece, Tom. Thank you. If capitalism works all products should get good enough at speed. Commoditization and profit-less-ness is what a fully optimized market should look like. In such an environment ‘brand’ becomes the only think that’s different – like it was for the commodity head of cattle that were literally ‘branded’ by their ranchers.

And that’s what takes products out of an amoral market context and regrounds them in the social world. If Tom’s branded beaf is as good as Sally’s but he beats his children and doesn’t pay his taxes, Sally’s ‘mark’ signaling fair play and community engagement would be the tie breaker at the point of sale. That’s all brand is and has ever been.

You’re identifying the fact that almost everything is equally corrupt, fake and extractive now, from personal brands to politicians. So to retire ‘brand purpose’ as a tired adland concept is to also retire brand as anything but bullshit. And that’s fair and right in most if not all cases now.

But notice the opportunity that this opens up. For brands. Real brands. That don’t have to over promising (lie) about their societal value and virtue.

Let’s look for those truth tellers. Make them our clients. And become like them.

I recently posted a piece that’s very much in the same vein. It’s overlong but if you find the time I’d love your thoughts.

https://link.medium.com/mJMoNp1lF7

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Purpose defines the raison d’être and the function of a company. Purpose is the over all guiding principle for the company in its day-to-day business, its strategic alignment, and its interaction with all stakeholders and society as a whole. Whoever considers Purpose as a marketing task or even the marketing department as its creator, has not yet understood the purpose-driven approach of corporate leadership.

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Brands do not have a purpose.
People may have purposes.
Without people there are no brands.
Dogs don’t drink Coca Cola.
Coca Cola has no purpose.

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Some strong and fair critiques here. Thanks for this!
When discussing this topic, I appreciate that you go all the way to Naomi Klein as the underlying question is often: are we critiquing advertising? brands? companies? and/or… capitalism itself?

And for those interested in reading further on “brand truth” and a different historical angle on the search for meaning or purpose, try here:
https://www.marketing-interactive.com/the-3-brand-schools-which-stage-is-your-brand-at

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As a believer in “purpose” for individuals and companies to find meaningful success, I wasn’t certain how I would feel about your point of view. Part of my job as a brand strategist is to help companies clarify, codify and and communicate their unique why, what and how. To not “start with why,” would rip the heart out of my beliefs and my career (and wreck my love for Simon Sinek’s work). Fortunately, you didn’t suggest that having a purpose was flawed. You said faking it was. I couldn’t agree more. And it is such a relief to know that when I work with “pseudo” purpose brands, I don’t have to force them to wear a suit of clothes that doesn’t fit. What I can do is counsel them to make their little “p” purpose (credit to Daniel Pink for this idea) centered in a unique, distinct contribution they can credibly and consistently make through their products or services to people that need what they have to offer to… solve a problem, achieve a goal, satisfy a desire or simply support a role (classic Clayton Christensen). I also concur that as marketers and advertising leaders, our essential work is to help brands tell stories that sell because they serve the listener well. Thanks for your candor and your challenge to confront truth in advertising…and in life.

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Really enjoyed the compare and contrast of how advertisers/marketers as individuals may be responding to the shift in culture. And therefore looking to ‘borrow causes’ to make themselves feel better about things.

I think it’s also interesting the 3 types of Purpose brands you discussed and their relationship with advertising.

Born Purposeful: Often experience huge organic growth and turn to advertising in a truly reluctant state. Almost feeling like they’ve sold out by paying to share their message.

Corporate Converts: Maybe fits the bill Ritson / Sharp preach from the Binet & Field eye on long and short term investment. The tension here is less about advertising. And more how about how much are they willing to invest in the Purpose message.

Pseudo-purposeful: Everything they do is thinking about how the TVC will look. Advertising is the only option. But often then becomes a ‘campaign’ (borrowed cause). Unfortunately, biggest budgets and the ones that most piss off Ritson / Sharp and the rest of us! (aka Pepsi BLM, Heineken Share a Drink) #wokewashing

My personal view is aligned with Ritson in that it must come from your original purpose. Now some of the Corporate Converts did actually start with a core purpose in mind. And lost their way and looking to return. However, if Profit was the goal. Simply bolting on causes will not work!

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Agree with most of the classification. Perhaps I would add a 4th category, where I think most products and brands fall into: those that do not bother about purpose. Those that focus on their products and how to solve specific problems. Those that do not get distracted by laddering up the brand benefit all the way to solve humanity’s problems. I would dare to say that Apple is such a brand. It is their products that we connect with and mostly what they feature in their advertising

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Apple’s success was positioning their product as the ideology of the West (freedom, creativity, individualism) versus the very Russian, fascist state (conformity, group think, restriction) in the company defining ad 1984. Later, this concept expanded to contrast Mac (human) versus PC (machine). Talking about humanity and elevating beyond the functional problem their technology solves is the core of Apple’s brand and success.

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Great piece. This purpose trend is so puzzling. They run for-profit companies, but claim to have a higher mission. In essence, businesses are parroting nonprofits. If the higher mission was really so important for a business, why would you want to gain a profit for shareholders and owners? Why not become a nonprofit, reinvest in your business and your mission, get highly skilled people to work at reduced rates, avoid income taxes, and receive donations? Well, it must be because in most cases profit is the real purpose…

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The text sounds like a pain in your heart, but the truth is a brand (and people) find they purpose on the road…That means some people finds it earlier than the brands or viceversa…So mostly brands try find people in the road in the meantime the society tries to find their purpose…It’s very inception, but nowadays the brands are society mini me’s. Amen.

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Great piece, many thanks. The bottom line, I think, is that some brands do indeed achieve real and positive change in people’s lives. Dove did it buy focusing on girls’ low self-esteem. It was a great and distinctive (arguably brave) positioning, led to lots of viral ads, and to sales. But it also really did help tackle a vitally worrying social issue. And for me, that gave Dove a credible purpose as a brand.

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Putting aside the purpose fakes and the frauds and tax dodgers, rightly exposed, do you ever get the feeling a simulacrum of the culture war has come to marketing with Ritson, Sharp, Sutherland etc modeling spicy dark web edge lords and using the ‘p’ word as a substitute for the dreaded ‘w’ word, like a klaxon to drown out any possible nuanced discussion?

For example, the professed “lost confidence in selling”. They know, we all know, we’re stuck on the horns of a dilemma.

If we’re going to carry on measuring the economy in terms of GDP growth, the number & velocity of transactions – with money issued as debt plus interest – if we were to stop selling we’d crash the economy and break the social contract. (And knowing this to be the mechanism, how strange is it that marketing having to “prove it’s value” is a perennial issue.)

And, on the other horn of the dilemma, if we carry on consuming as we are, (especially the top 20% earners in U.S.), pumping 40bn tons of carbon into the atmosphere globally, stripping the top soil, abject inequality, and so on, we’ll risk ecological devastation and breaking the social contract.

Isn’t purpose, and conscious capitalism, and regenerative capitalism, and ‘fully automated luxury communism’, and the many other cliques and schools, all attempts at addressing the systemic problems with capitalism, and reorienting it?

Rather than dismissing it as niche how can successful cases be modeled, and if conventional banks can’t, then they are not fit for purpose… Ritson says customers don’t give a shit, which I suspect is projection…reminds me of a spec pitch to GM in 2002 where we tried to convince them (unsuccessfully) to make carbon zero cars, & that’s what they said then too…

I don’t think the issue is “lying” so much as it’s suspicion of manipulation and playing with our vulnerabilities to status-seeking. But compared to the psychogeography of suburban living, advertising is just icing on the cake. (Ironically, Packard for his own ends fabricated and spun Vicary’s experiment with subliminal advertising, which may in itself have been a hoax. according to Kelly Crandall, 2006)

In the end, if marketing is ultimately about creating meaning, then if it can create more meaning *MORE INTELLIGENTLY* using less materials, labor, land, and nature, that would be very useful.

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From an external marketing standpoint, I tend to believe the purpose stuff is fluff, unless it’s a position or distinctive asset you can own (Ben and Jerry’s for position, Dove for distinctiveness). What about the internal value of purpose in your brand? Does it improve retention? Does it attract better employees (skill, not virtue)? If you’ve come across any studies on the matter I’d be grateful.

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Excellent article (and sorry I missed it earlier), but I’d have to disagree with the conclusion, Tom. The last 10+ years have shown a trend away from businesses being solely profit and stock price oriented. As one of the other commenters has said here, purpose is about business, not about marketing. Marketing’s job is to find the right stories to tell to attract consumers: if purpose fits this need, then marketing can use it. But what’s clear – and read Marc de Swaan Arons on this if you haven’t – is that business is recognising the importance of contributing to customers, to communities and to society generally, as well as making profits. The work of the Institute for Real Growth has shown a pretty conclusive link between moving to a more responsible & purposeful business model and long term growth.

For myself, I have seen it in the data on brands through Kantar’s BrandZ project. We’ve been asking consumers about brands for over 20 years. For some years now, as part of our survey on brand attitudes, we have been explicitly asking whether consumers associate brands with the idea of ‘making lives better’ in some way, beyond profit. This is our definition of purpose, which might not be everyone’s. We’ve observed it has a pretty clear link with brand success in our models (NB: not just a correlation). And we’ve identified a range of types of ‘purpose’ – from the Purpose-as-Commitment brands like Tony’s and Patagonia, to the Purpose-as-Product brands like Pampers.

I believe that purpose has to start deeper than marketing functions and penetrate more widely, but that doesn’t mean that marketing can’t be part of it. And in some cases, marketing can be the inspiration for it.

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Why does everyone assume that ‘brand purpose’ is something worthy? I guess it must have come to mean this when I wasn’t concentrating. For me, a brand purpose just means why the brand exists – its role in the world however prosaic that might be. The purpose of Domestos is to stop us getting infections etc. Defined in this way, brands surely need to be clear about their purpose?

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