The Purpose of Purpose

Four ways brands can approach purpose marketing. Two of them you want to avoid.

Humans crave purpose. None of us wants to blindly push through life with our nose to the grindstone, and then drop dead one day and leave no footprints in the sand behind us.

Similarly, many marketers have come to believe that brands need purpose. Just making stuff and selling it isn’t enough. Today brands often look to stand for something larger, a more profound reason for existing. Red Bull wants to “energize the world.” CVS Health wants to make a healthier world. Dove wants to build the self-esteem of women and girls. These are some well-known examples of brand purpose.

There is a certain irony in this idealistic talk about brand purpose. It isn’t supposed to be about profit, but the most vocal proponents of purpose argue that the justification for having a purpose is ultimately that you can generate more profit. Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer at P&G and one of the leading purpose disciples, claims that brands with a purpose have consistently outperformed the rest of the S&P 500.

At Olson Zaltman, we recently conducted research for a large multi-national firm about purpose. In the interviews employees went on about making a difference in the world and helping people in less developed regions live more satisfying lives. A couple of times I couldn’t help myself and followed up with the obvious question, “So why are you working here instead of at an NGO?” which invariably generated a response along the lines of “Well, I can make more money here.”

My inner cynic feels some of the sermonizing about purpose is a bit sanctimonious, and that maybe purpose is really just a tool that helps marketers create more compelling communication and feel a little better about themselves when they look in the mirror. Perhaps this is also why living out a brand purpose and coming across to consumers as genuine can prove stubbornly difficult. Brand purpose can only work when, as Omar Rodriguez Vila and Sundar Bharadjwaj argue in Harvard Business Review, business goals are aligned with societal needs. When that is not the case, consumers are likely to see a brand’s well-intentioned efforts as disingenuous and Machiavellian.

I divide brands that have tried to build consumer campaigns around purpose into four groups. We see two models of success (the Deity and the Convert) and two models of failure (the Traitor and the Opportunist).

The purpose Deity is a consumer brand that has been built from the ground up around the idea of some social purpose. Vila and Bharadwaj note that it is almost impossible to envision these brands existing without their purpose and it is nearly impossible for a consumer to patronize these brands without, to some extent, buying into their purpose.

A classic example is TOMS with its One-for-One business model. For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a child in need. For every pair of eyewear purchased it will provide one person in need with a comprehensive eye exam. For every bag of coffee purchased it will donate a week’s supply of water to someone who lacks access to safe water systems. Daniel Pink writes, “TOMS’s social mission…isn’t a tender nicety. It’s integral to the competitive logic of the company.”

Naturally, some skeptics refuse to let a good deed go unpunished and TOMS’s efforts have received criticism for being inefficient and encouraging dependence. However, even the naysayers agree TOMS is well-intentioned. These good intentions have created a passionate community of consumers that sees an alignment between their personal values and the purpose that rests at the heart of the TOMS brand.

Although purpose Diety brands are uncommon TOMS is certainly not alone. Warby Parker, Patagonia, REI, and Seventh Generation all have been built from the ground up around a compelling social purpose.

The purpose Convert isn’t exactly built around social purpose. Instead, these brands figure out a way to take a central business purpose and apply it in a broader societal context. Often the bridge, though logical, involves highly creative and expansive thinking.

Deutsche Telekom’s brand message is the idea that “life is for sharing.” That is not a revolutionary message for a telecom company, of course. These companies exist to enable customers to share voice, videos, pictures, and texts. However, Deutsche Telekom took a step back and asked itself, “Who could our enemy be?” In other words, what is something that prevents sharing? The answer they settled upon was dementia, which isolates people and robs them of their memories and connections.

This insight, combined with the company’s interest in disabusing consumers of their darkest fears about Big Data, sparked the creation of a mobile game called Sea Hero Quest, which is not only engaging (while 90 percent of games are played only once, Sea Hero Quest is played an average of 3.75 times) but which also tracks and accumulates data about players’ navigational abilities, the deterioration of which is an important early warning sign for dementia. The recent unveiling of a virtual reality version of the game has made the data collected even more robust.

This massive dataset of spatial awareness would have taken scientists decades to build on their own — two minutes of gameplay equals five hours of laboratory research. Deutsche Telekom has made its Sea Hero Quest data publicly available and the impact could be incalculable. “The findings the game is yielding have enormous potential to support vital developments in dementia research,” according to Dr. Hugo Spiers of University College London. “The ability to diagnose dementia at early stages, well before patients exhibit any signs of general memory loss, would be a milestone.” The publicity around the game also was a milestone for the company, which received nearly 3,000 media hits globally, with an estimated media value of more than €30 million.

Vaseline is another purpose Convert. The Vaseline Healing Project connected the brand’s traditional purpose of healing skin with a critical global need — the importance of helping people affected by poverty or disaster find inexpensive solutions for healing cuts and burns and preventing hard-to-treat skin infections — and reversed an extended stretch of declining volume.

Unilever’s detergent brand Persil has re-framed the traditional enemy of detergents — dirt — as a positive. It’s global “Dirt is Good” campaign encourages children to play, be free, and develop the tools they need to live a successful and more fulfilled life. CVS affirmed its commitment to health by becoming the first national retail pharmacy chain in the US to halt sales of tobacco products.

On the other side we have brands that stumble all over themselves trying to bring a purpose to life. The purpose Traitor is the brand that espouses a brand purpose, sells that purpose convincingly, and then is discovered or perceived to have betrayed that purpose. This is why marketing around a brand purpose can be a high-wire act — one misstep can erase years of work in an instant and that trust can be nearly impossible to rebuild.

In the early 2000s books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma perpetuated concerns about the health and safety of industrialized food. In response Chipotle Mexican Grill created two animated films, Back to the Start and The Scarecrow, skewering industrialized farming and asserting its commitment to sustainable farming and meat produced without antibiotics.

However, Chipotle’s claims in 2015 that it had removed most GMO-based plant ingredients from its menu proved a step too far and invited cries of hypocrisy from activists and the media. Later that year outbreaks of norovirus and E. coli sickened dozens of Chipotle customers and forced the closure of 43 restaurants in Washington and Oregon. Today the company is still struggling to regain its hard-earned credibility as a purveyor of safer, more socially responsible food.

Finally, there is the purpose Opportunist that seems to be chasing whatever social issue is hot at the moment without regard to any true connection to the brand. Exhibit A is Starbucks’ failed Race Together initiative, which encouraged baristas and customers to engage in a dialogue about race in the wake of the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Although Race Together genuinely reflected CEO Howard Schultz’s progressive beliefs, there was no link between the campaign and the reason consumers patronize Starbucks. Standing in line at 7:30 am waiting for our Caramel Mocchiato is not the time or place when most of us want to engage in a deep discussion about race relations. That has nothing to do with why we are there. So the effort, while sincere and well-intentioned, came off as high-handed and tone-deaf.

Similarly, ExxonMobil gets little credit for its commitment to, as its website puts it, “providing affordable energy to support human progress while advancing effective solutions to address climate change.” Fossil fuel consumption is the primary reason for climate change and, in fact, ExxonMobil been accused of covering up what it knows about climate change, so its environmentally focused messaging reeks of Orwellian newspeak.

Brand purpose should not be conflated with corporate social responsibility, nor should it be separated from the need to make a profit. Although it laudable for us, as individual human beings, to do good things with no underlying selfish motivations, corporations exist to maximize profit and so purpose efforts must (sadly, perhaps) help build brand equity and be aligned with the brand’s core mission. Those firms that do it well make it look easy; in reality, though, it is a very difficult needle to thread. The four-faced model of success and failure presented here can help marketers think more systematically about their brand purpose efforts.

James Forr is Head of Insights at Olson Zaltman