3 minutes, 40 second read Jon Goulding, CEO, Atomic London
Let me start with a clarification. There’s nothing wrong with brands that have an authentic purpose. In fact, having a powerful sense of a ‘why’ is useful not only as a sustainable source of motivation but as a means to help you find your ‘how’ and your ‘what’. In fact it’s vital. No truly successful brand can do without one.
But brand purpose as it came to be understood towards the end of the last decade was, in the majority of cases, anything but authentic. Having become more and more sure over the years that in order to succeed a brand needed some higher socially driven goal – or socially responsible raison d’être – businesses began to contrive reasons for being that had little or nothing to do with the reasons they were created or how they operated in practice. In some cases – the cases that often made headlines – it wasn’t just that the brand’s declared purpose was inconsistent with its behaviour, but that it was contradictory to its behaviour.
At other times, the messaging was just off, leading you to wonder who was in the room at the time the idea was conceived.
Gillette, having played to traditional images of masculinity for decades, appeared to radically change tack towards the end of the 2010s and incurred the wrath of much of the viewing public when it released an advert in which a young transgender man learned to shave.
Audi got in hot water when it was noticed that, after airing an advert supporting equal pay, only two of the company’s 14 executives were women.
One of the most notorious examples was the 2017 Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner. It became the defining instance of ‘woke-washing’.
Does anyone really need to be told that your purpose should be something you do actually believe in? The evidence suggests they do. But the more interesting point is that it’s fairly self-evident that most companies were not created for any purpose that goes beyond solving a problem for customers.
Purpose may play into this: you might be selling widgets and care enough about climate change to sell those widgets in a sustainable way. But ultimately, you’re selling widgets because lots of people really want widgets and you can accommodate that market. So long as you go about that in a socially responsible way, most would agree that that’s enough.
And that’s what the era of brand purpose has shown us. Serving your customers in a decent way, giving people something that they want and value – that’s a purpose all by itself, and a good one. Working hard every day to carry out that responsibility to the highest professional and ethical standard possible is even more admirable. What matters is how you communicate that in a distinctive, emotive way.
Rather than look around nervously for something you can hold up to the paying public as a noble raison d’être, it would be far more useful to embrace your real purpose and think of a way in which you can make that resonate with your customers.
Some of those scandal-hit brands went down the road they did because creating an emotionally engaging purpose seemed preferable than trying to find a way to communicate their true purpose in a really creative, distinctive, and emotionally engaging way.
One thing that people really don’t like is hypocrisy or cynicism.
No one wants to be lied to or to be treated like a fool. So even though it would be utterly unfair to say that every brand that created a purpose out of thin air did so because they wanted to profit off the gullibility of their own customers, that’s how many customers felt.
I therefore have sympathy for many brands, and especially those that carried out fantastic purpose-driven work. But ultimately, they made an error in judgment.
And that error in judgment has perhaps led to a deeper understanding that so long as you go about your work in a responsible way, it is admirable just to work hard, to be authentic, and to strive to provide a better service to your customers. The thing you need to do then is to communicate that in a brilliantly engaging way.