The Purpose Paradox

What The Progressive Populist Movement Means For Brands Desperately Seeking Purpose

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If there is a single political entity you need to be paying attention to right now, it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez AKA “AOC”. If there is a single book you should be reading right now, it’s “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing The World” by Anand Giridahadas. And if there is media coverage/public sentiment you should be paying attention to right now, it’s how the early days' campaign of independent candidate Howard Schultz is being received. These three forces combined are providing real-time insights for anyone who is willing to apply them to their lives, but for companies and brands—it’s especially compelling because what all three have in common is skepticism of the business world that we’ve not seen before, a compelling case that’s increasingly becoming a mainstream view and a true movement that blends populist energy with Democrat enthusiasm.

It’s going to be a game changer, and brands who seek to uphold the mantra of “doing well by doing good” may find their motivations questioned like never before…

Exhibit A: System Failure

Source: *Edelman 2019 Trust Barometer

As Anand Giridahadas states more than once in his book, Donald Trump came to power understanding that public sentiment, especially amongst groups where things like globalism had disrupted livelihoods, had reached a negative critical mass. What Giridahadas points out as an assessment, is that Trump’s focus actually remains on preserving much of the status quo vs. making systematic changes that would actually benefit many of the people he makes the public case for. The macro thesis of “Winners Take All” supports recent *Edelman Trust Barometer data which reinforces that both the general public as well as the ultra-informed generally feel like we’re living at a time where “the system” is failing us. But where Anand goes further, with his thesis is that it is the leaders of big business and the school of thought he refers to as “Market World” that has helped architect this system.

To be clear, big business translates into household brand names and obscure multinational corporations alike. His main criticism is that these companies, brands, and businesses have for some time been rushing to put words and deeds behind “saving the world” initiatives. And he surmises that these efforts aren’t enough—even with the best of intentions at best, and are at worst a distraction from the problems these entities have helped create in the first place:

“There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history.” 
Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

The Purpose Paradox: Today and Tomorrow
Anand’s thesis is prophetic in my estimation and for companies, organizations, and brands who find themselves grappling with existential questions such as why they exist beyond making a profit—it’s going to be a game changer. Put simply for brands:

Today’s Question To Answer:
“What purpose do we serve in the world and what would people miss if we didn’t exist”?

Tomorrow’s Question To Answer:
“What impact are we making for the greater benefit of society—how are we helping make systematic changes for the betterment of humanity and planet”

Anand’s skeptical eye toward companies, brands and the billionaires behind them comes at exactly the right time and place in society. “Billionaire” is fast becoming a dirty word, and this will inevitably create a ripple effect down to the individual brands these billionaires represent. “Doing well by doing good” is going to face scrutiny we’ve never seen until this point. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it will happen. As the Democratic Socialist movement gains traction, voices and forces dialogue we’ve not yet had at scale—any organization with the potential to create a positive or negative impact will be under scrutiny, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to the Beltway and back.

For stewards of brands, the “veneer of purpose”—efforts that by design are made to appear to do good without measurable impact or with even the slightest hint of less than noble intent are going to become a liability vs. an asset. This is the “purpose paradox” brands will face in the years to come.

Public vs. Private: A False Choice
I’ve not gotten to the end of “Winners Take All” but I am more than halfway through it. For most of it, I find myself nodding along with so many of the compelling points made. But also, I find a voice in my head asking if systematic change as something that can only be handled by government-sanctioned bureaucracy vs. private organizations is something of a false choice. In life, I tend to gravitate to solutions that embrace the “ands” vs. the “ors”, searching for the areas where improvements can and should be made. One of Anand’s starker perspectives is that our brightest minds are being seduced into starting or joining enterprises that promise some form of social justice vs. pouring their intellectual capabilities into civic activations and duties that act as a catalyst for systematic, policy-oriented change. I don’t think he’s off…

But we’re also a country who can chew gum, blow bubbles and walk at the same time.

Source: *Edelman 2018 Earned Brand Global Survey

In Brand We Trust?
Exhibit B: According to 2018 *Edelman Earned Brand study, consumers are looking to brands for solutions to social and societal challenges—or at the minimum to have a voice or stance on key issues if it makes sense. We’ve seen Nike’s fans double down on the brand when it picked a socially conscious moment, but no doubt we’ve seen other brands fall short of aligning purpose to intent. While civic involvement will no doubt be key to progress in society, a reality exists that people are looking for voices, direction, leadership, examples, and action from a number of places and not just government—an institution, that’s also played a key role in how we got to where we are. So there’s a massive amount of trust to be built and re-built at all levels and this includes the words, deeds, and actions of brands. This is where Anand’s critique needs to be taken to heart. With great power comes not only responsibility but accountability. If brands thought it was challenging to “do well by doing good” yesterday—it will be even more so tomorrow. When Patagonia declined to accept their corporate tax break and instead re-direct those funds to environmentalist groups, it may have been a non-scalable gesture but it wasn’t just about re-allocating millions of dollars as much as it is a brand who takes being consistent with their values system very seriously. It this kind of substance, consistency, and clarity that builds trust.

An Era of Accountability 
Broadly speaking, what can we expect from a movement that is actively questioning the system and power structures that have built today’s state of play? I would humbly put forth that we are fast moving into an era of accountability that will impact all parties who wield influence, power, wealth and the ability to move the needle a little or a lot when it comes to how the system evolves over time. More will be expected. More will be scrutinized. Actions will speak louder than words and motives will be examined. Accountability will become a greater expectation from the public, from the civic-minded, from “consumers” as we all are. Brands who are desperately seeking their higher purpose and place in this world aren’t wrong to do so—it’s actually imperative to be soul searching at this juncture in time. But we’ll all have to do this knowing that we’ll be held to a higher level of accountability in the near future. The stakes are high and awareness is rising—as will expectations and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and civic-minded critics such as Anand Giridahadas represent the early voices of a growing groundswell. It matters less how much you agree or disagree with their philosophies, but more of how this movement will influence, change and evolve our public discourse and reset expectations.

Brands, companies, publically held companies, and privately run business have a dog in this fight as the cultural winds blow and swirl, and our best bet moving forward is to examine the purity of our intent and the ability we have to create tangible positive impact. We can expect more accountability not less in an era where the system is examined, challenged questioned and calls for change persist. Call it a “purpose paradox” for brands, with broader implications for society.

*Disclaimer: Global Trust Barometer and Earned Brand surveys are proprietary research conducted by communications marketing firm Edelman, my employer.