How moral posturing killed brand purpose

Nobody is more dangerous than people who think they’re the good guys.

Every great atrocity of human history was fuelled by people utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. We might remember them as villains, but in their time it’s unlikely they were alone in seeing themselves as heroes; their cause just, and their means necessary.

Conversely the truly noble rarely seem to have thought of themselves as such. Who do you imagine would have had a higher opinion of their own virtue – Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, or Josef Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot? Something tells me the former trio would have had rather more self-doubt than the latter, and this, ironically, was the central contributing factor to their virtue.

This basic lesson of history should always lead us to be highly sceptical of moral fervour whenever and wherever it emerges – because although it generally doesn’t result in tragedy (fortunately), it does nevertheless tend to corrupt; degrading the very things it’s meant to enhance.

One example of such “virtue corruption” – and yes I realise how ridiculous it is to bounce from Pol Pot to this, but bear with me – is the concept of “brand purpose”.

Brand purpose, in its original formulation, is one of the most useful ideas in all business strategy, but has been utterly corrupted by moral fervour, transforming it into an object of ridicule.

Quite how it underwent this metamorphosis is unclear, but given that it gave many businesspeople the opportunity to paint themselves as brave social reformers rather than mere product floggers, we shouldn’t be surprised that it did.

Their view of brand purpose is the one that has become the most common: essentially positioning companies as crusaders for moral causes.

Now although there are some brands for whom this definition happens to fit quite naturally (Patagonia, The Body Shop, Toms, etc), for most it’s completely inappropriate. In such cases the most common consequences of following a purpose-led strategy have been:

  1. The development of ludicrously abstract purposes, such as Starbucks’ impossibly high minded “inspire and nurture the human spirit”, or Verizon’s incomprehensible “Humanability” (as a general rule of thumb if you couldn’t guess the brand from the purpose, there’s probably some virtue corruption at play).
  2. Releasing tone-deaf marketing, such as the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi spot, or Gillette’s backfiring #metoo campaign.
  3. Provoking vicious backlashes as brands fail to live up to their self professed ideals, as the likes of VW, Google, and Starbucks (again) have learnt the hard way.

In short most brands have no place being finger wagging preachers, and so naturally humiliate themselves when they try to be.

The tragedy of all this is not the hilarious missteps, confusing messages, and wasted resources that it’s provoked. The tragedy is missing out on the benefits of real brand purpose – which shares similarities with the virtue corrupted one, but is at root profoundly different.

True brand purpose I would define as:

The value a company provides more broadly than its product, category, or market.

A decent example can be found with Mars Petcare. Mars Petcare is, fundamentally, a pet food company – comprising brands such as Pedigree, Cesar, and Iams. Their purpose however isn’t rooted in the idea of “food”. Instead they define the job of their company as making “A better world for pets”. Now being a corporate purpose statement that’s obviously a bit fluffy, but if we boil it down it’s quite practical – it basically means “improving living conditions for pets”. That’s Mars Petcare’s “job”. Not “to make pet food”, but to “improve living conditions for pets”.

This is an extremely meaningful distinction, because shifts the definition of the company from the product it makes to the value it provides with that product – and as such opens up a huge number of interesting new avenues for expansion, and delivering that value even more emphatically and profitably.

For example, in 2007 Mars Petcare acquired Banfield Pet Hospital, followed by BluePearl in 2015 and VCA in 2017 – all veterinary practices which, quite clearly, fit comfortably underneath their purpose. It has also branched into “smart collars” and other pet monitoring services – a multi category approach which makes sense with their purposeful definition in a way that it never would with a more literal product or category definition.

In addition to freeing Mars Petcare to expand and innovate (still within well-defined bounds), such a definition also allows them to develop their offering in a manner which will deliver greater value to consumers than they’d be able to as a rigidly defined pet food company – e.g. by integrating services.

Compare the practically minded sense of this purpose to the likes of “inspire and nurture the human spirit”. Although they are supposedly doing the same job, the difference in execution is night and day. Mars Petcare use theirs as a blueprint for expansion and for bringing more value to the world, whilst for Starbucks it appears to be an exercise in pure posturing. This is particularly tragic since in their early days Starbucks had one of the all time great purposes (though they didn’t call it that), with their vision to create a “third space” between home and work – a strategy which led to some of their finest innovations.

A big part of the confusion has arisen I think because a number of companies who do purpose correctly just so happen to have a social cause at their heart – such as the ones I mentioned earlier. This makes sense because if you are a social cause oriented business, you have to define your company in terms of its broader role, rather than its products or category. Other brands then obviously looked at this and mistook the noise for the signal – believing that these purposeful brands’ secret lay in their worthiness, as opposed to their more openly-framed definition.

Quite simply brand purpose has nothing to do with ethics, virtue, activism, social issues, doing good, or any other similar topics which have polluted the discipline. You can be a highly purposeful brand without any of those things – simply via a broad definition of your organisation’s role in the world. Yes, in all likelihood your definition, like Mars Petcare’s, will be worthwhile. After all any decent business must be providing something of value, and thus is, in a manner of speaking, “doing good”. But that doesn’t mean it will be worthy. That part is optional.

So as the war rages on out there, between the brand purpose zealots and the brand purpose cynics, realise that the correct path lies somewhere between them. There is indeed wisdom in the concept – just not in the place we’re told to look for it.

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