Here’s a challenge for marketers everywhere: Start a drinking game based on the number of times anyone says brand purpose, then see if you can stay sober for more than thirty minutes a week.
(Who needs three-martini lunches with Don Draper when you can sneak a shot of tequila every time you go off-camera?)
For decades marketers were trained to apply the 4 P’s of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. Then a framework frenzy led to more P-words—weighty ones like people and performance—that needed at least a paragraph to explain. Soon we had 5 P’s, then 7, even 9, until finally there was one P to rule them all.
Purpose-led marketing became our new religion, and if you hadn’t been a convert before, the arrival of the pandemic (another P-word) convinced marketers they have to take a stand ... on something. Anything, really, as long as it’s trending.
Now, before we paint an entire industry with a broad and cynical brush, it’s important to acknowledge that some brands pivoted beautifully during the early days of the pandemic, but most flooded the airwaves with sanctimonious solidarity. (The best parody of this can be seen around the 18-minute mark of Bo Burnham’s comedy special “Inside,” currently on Netflix.)
Marketers are behaving more and more like politicians—licking a finger to test the winds of popular opinion, then shoving their noses into the hornet’s nest of public discourse.
That isn’t purpose, that’s pandering.
And like politicians, brands find themselves up one day and plummeting the next, not only because consumers live across the full political spectrum, but because brands have no inherent credibility on most issues.
Read that last line again, because it’s important. Purpose is simply the extrapolation of why your company was founded in the first place—to make something better. Whatever that something is, focus on it and own it.
Patagonia has consistently gotten this right. It makes perfect sense that a brand dedicated to exploring the outdoors builds sustainability into its business, which lends credibility to everything from free lifetime repairs to “1% for the Planet.” It creates a halo of perceived value and lifetime loyalists.
Warby Parker makes affordable eyeglasses, so when they offer a helping hand to people in faraway places who can’t see, it seems both natural and inspiring. You become a customer and an advocate. Earned media raises awareness and the brand attracts new customers.