Purpose vs. Bullshit

Purpose branding is “bullshit” and “nonsense talk”, agree Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson and marketing scientist Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow.

These comments from a debate at the recent Festival of Marketing in London caught my eye. Despite their best efforts to disagree, the headline speakers shared obvious disdain for the concept of purpose branding. Their comments speak to a bigger issue.

Yes. It’s bullshit if Purpose is conceived as simply an external position. This often happens, and it’s putting the cart before the horse.

And No. When the purpose in purpose-branding is strategic, Purpose will define the societal role of an organisation. I’ll use a capital P for this context. In an era of hyper-transparency and digital transformation, Purpose is the basis of resilience: the building blocks of Antifragile. Purpose-driven brands do better in volatility.

Here are the key claims from the Festival of Marketing debate, as reported in Marketing Week:

“Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s [that] were founded on purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – like ‘make today great’ – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit, they don’t want you to make lives better they just want you to manage their money.” — Mark Ritson

“Brand purpose is the bullshit we tell ourselves because there is no honour in making good products and making our customers happy. [Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as [if] we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff…” — Byron Sharp

With all due respect…

Banking and telecoms are not the best examples of industries which can ignore the thorny issue of Purpose. It’s not credible in 2017 to contend that companies are morally neutral, nor that their only responsibility is to deliver the goods at a profit.

Ben and Jerry’s commitment to social responsibility and an ethical supply chain may be admirable, but it makes ice cream! With more fat, sugar (and salted caramel) than most other ice creams, in markets where obesity is epidemic and heart disease a primary cause of death.

No matter. Objectively, Purpose matters much more for banks and telcos.

The social utility of finance and bandwidth trumps Cookie Dough ice cream.

Most of the bulge-bracket global banks have to contend with public mistrust and negative opinion. Problems of trust and reputation in the financial sector have damaged politics and institutions. Many serious analysts contend that fall-out from the financial crisis of 2007-8 is the root cause of resurgent populism, nationalism and volatility in liberal democracies.

The causes – and potential remedies – are divisive topics. Rightly so, because they relate to systemic problems. Banks and telcos are indispensable. We need public trust in the fairness of finance and information technology. Access to markets, pricing, consumer rights and risk appetite are all crucial issues of public policy.

(None of which is to belittle the Ben and Jerry’s founders Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, who started their wildly successful venture into high-end comfort food from a garage in Burlington, Vermont in 1978. Their commitment to quality suppliers and philanthropy remains at the core of their brand, now a Unilever subsidiary.)

Byron Sharp urged marketers to claim more credit for the astonishing achievements of a global market economy.

Anyone who really cares about people or planet will recognise the contribution of marketing, he said. Competition has driven the economic growth which has improved life expectancy, literacy and living standards.

Well…Yes, and Maybe.

Marketing is in the throes of structural change. Everyone agrees on that. The line between paid and earned content has blurred, and looks set to disappear. What companies claim for themselves is not readily believed. The things they say need to be proved. Jointly and severally, business has a bigger part to play in addressing serious concerns for sustainability and societal balance.

The trend towards purpose-branding is a reflection of anxiety.

No doubt it’s motivated also by good intentions, but marketers should not be asked to compensate for the lack of Purpose and Strategy.

Banks. Telcos. Farmers. Manufacturers. Utilities. Every industry needs purpose to guide strategy.

Absent Purpose, we all suffer the consequences of the sub-prime mortgage bubble. Absent global financing, mobile phones would still be a rich man’s toy. Absent price pressure on mobile tariffs, we would still be walking around with half-brick sized mobiles — if, that is, we could afford the $10 per minute calls.

Branding is often defensive – it’s tactics, not strategy. 

In the age of social media, executives expect marketers to get their story out first. Managers look to marketing teams to protect them from hyper-transparency.

“Five or 10 years ago we were better at strategy than we are now. Most companies don’t have any strategy… My advice would be – try and get strategy first before you start talking about TV, Facebook or anything.” — Mark Ritson

These comments speak to the larger imperative for organisations to become Antifragile. That is, to build competitive advantage from volatility.

In future, we will all spend less time trying to differentiate brands through their claims – in advertising and other channels. “The future is for marketers who will do more analysis and thinking and are good scientists,” Byron Sharp said in London, “I would advise people to learn how to do controlled experiments, rather than knowing about how ink bleeds off the page.” The role of marketers will be to test the claims of businesses and CEOs.

Antifragile organisations focus on demonstrable narratives.

They need values rooted in experience and outcomes. Purpose is the right place to start.

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