In a recent article in MarketingWeek, Airbnb’s Alexandra Dimiziani takes a perhaps slightly more prosaic approach to brand purpose than usual, something for which she deserves at least partial credit. However, the always-present fundamental issues with the altruistic approach are on full display in her piece.
Brand purpose is about doing something for others without expecting something in return, about doing good for the greater good. As such, it is inherently altruistic. Yet it is often motivated, as in the article, with ROI. It’s “good business”.
This creates an ethical Catch 22. If you justify altruism with ROI, you immediately undermine any altruism at the foundation of your so-called brand purpose to the point where, I’d argue, you are no longer allowed to call it altruistic.
It also insinuates that you would do the opposite if it were simply better for business. Brand “unpurpose”, as Mark Ritson once called it. While this may sound far-fetched, it’s quite demonstrably what these same companies do when it comes to paying tax or, rather, not paying tax.
The fact of the matter is that brand purpose becomes a farce when the brand fails to come anywhere near to living up to its promise, as demonstrated when the bank behind the supposedly purpose-driven “Fearless Girl” campaign was fined $5M for underpaying women and minorities recently.
Now, despite my criticism of brand purpose, I do believe it can have its benefits and, in fairness to Dimiziani, I think she’s on the right track.
If you are looking to use a brand purpose, you have to put it on a corporate strategy level so that it is not only imbued into every fabric of your organization, but also more highly prioritized than maximizing business outcomes.
That’s altruism. Purpose before profit. And while there are companies that manage to (Ben & Jerry’s the popular example, Swedish beer brewery Härjebrygg perhaps my favorite one), shareholder theory practically prevents most others.
Of course, that is the point where brands start talking about how good purpose is for ROI, which takes us back to square one, and it becomes quite evident why brand purpose remains a rather poor (and problematic) strategy.