The Death of Purpose: How Bandwagoning Is Throttling Important Progress

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By Greg Ricciardi, President, CEO and Founder of 20nine 

If we, as marketers, are proficient at anything, it’s beating a wonderful concept to death. Whether it’s a popular meme or graphic design style, we are adept at grabbing hold of the latest trend, bending it to suit the whims of our brands and subsequently wringing every last ounce of utility and creativity out of said concept.

Of course, when we all hop on board the latest TikTok fad, the consequences are minimal. The problem comes in when we take truly necessary, truly transformative movements and pile on top of them until they’ve lost all meaning. That’s precisely what’s happening today with purpose-driven marketing and unfortunately, this bandwagon effect threatens to stall some tremendous progress being made by some tremendous brands.

Not all brands should be marketing themselves around a higher purpose. By fabricating a higher purpose where one does not truly exist (i.e., “purpose-washing” a brand), executives are diluting the messages and credibility of the brands that are truly improving our world. That’s a problem. To understand why, let’s first talk about the different types of purpose in business—and why they don’t apply to every brand.

The 3 Types of Purpose in Business

Before going too far into purpose-gone-wrong in marketing, let’s talk about where purpose belongs. In essence, there are three vital and positive manifestations of purpose ascending in the business world today:

The Social Enterprise

It is possible for purpose to be the sole mission of a company or consumer product. When this is the case, we refer to these unique organizations as social enterprises. Simply put, they exist to solve a problem or meet a need in society and their purpose informs the brand’s vision, mission, story, visual identity, decision making and pretty much everything else.

Take Thankyou, for example. Thankyou is a social enterprise that offers a line of products, all with the goal of helping to end extreme poverty by committing 100 percent of their profit to helping people in need. And then there are companies like Auticon, a quality assurance company for IT products that only hires people with autistic spectrum disorder. The company, whose interview process and work environment have been designed to eliminate certain social interactions or stimuli that can be uncomfortable to people with autism, is a great representation of how people with different capabilities can provide great value to the workforce.

Purpose-Driven Companies

Separate from social enterprises, purpose-driven companies and brands are those that have crafted their purpose to make a positive impact on the world and society. Their purpose is clearly defined and the values and behaviors of the brands are present in the culture of their people and the products or services that they produce.

One of the most notable examples of a purpose-driven company is Patagonia, whose mission says it all: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” But not all purpose exists at the global level. Consider Philadelphia’s Down North Pizza, a mission-led for-profit restaurant built to “exclusively employ formerly incarcerated individuals while providing culinary career opportunities at a fair wage and equitable workplace.”

Purpose-Led Companies

That brings us to purpose-led companies. As opposed to implementing purpose so that it influences business and social outcomes, purpose-led companies embed purpose into their businesses in a way that influences their innovation, operations and engagement with society.

In the B2B world, we see this embodied in companies like Accenture and Deloitte, both of which have built a culture that trains their consultants on critical skills like empathy, storytelling and leadership so that they can impact their clients and, in turn, their clients can impact the world. On the B2C side, we find purpose-led brands like Lego, which has focused its core values and mission on making sustainable products and running environmentally responsible operations, with a higher purpose “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.”

The beauty of today’s increasingly socially conscious marketplace is that we’re seeing a growing roster of social enterprises and purpose-driven and -led companies emerge on the scene and the impact they’re making is very real. However, their voices and missions are in danger of being drowned out by brands whose only real purpose is to jump on the “greater good” bandwagon.

The Purpose-Washing Needs to Stop

Let me be clear: Purpose is a beautiful thing and I truly believe that today’s social enterprises and purpose-driven and -led companies are necessary and effective forces for change in our world. But not every company serves a higher purpose and those that don’t fall into one of the above categories need to stop marketing themselves as though they do.

For some brands, the purpose-washing is surface level—tweeting or posting support for the popular cause du jour without truly aligning a company’s values to that cause. For other companies, particularly those that operate in vice or “necessary evil” categories, the purpose-washing runs deeper.

Bear in mind: Just because a company is doing something good doesn’t mean consuming its product is good. When alcohol brands roll out campaigns around moderation or opioid manufacturers donate proceeds to rehabilitation programs, they’re not serving a greater purpose. They’re offsetting their own damage. The same goes for oil companies that promote their efforts to reduce emissions.

This isn’t to say that all companies shouldn’t make the best choices possible for society. And it’s also not to say that these companies don’t produce good products or that they’re inherently evil. People like to drink alcohol and gamble. Doctors prescribe opioids for pain. People drive gas-powered cars. The companies that operate in these industries are fulfilling a demand and it’s wonderful when they choose to offset the dangers of their products or reduce their impact on the environment in some way. The problem comes in when these brands throw all their media budget behind campaigns that try to convince consumers that they’re driven by a greater purpose, versus simply making ethical decisions when they can.

In other words, no one should be comparing beer brands to the likes of Patagonia—but there’s plenty of “purpose-driven” commentary swirling around that does just that. We’re nearing a point where “purpose” is going to be shelved in consumer minds along with so many overdone marketing tactics—but purpose is too important for us to let that happen.

Marketers have some of the most important jobs in the world. We influence people every day. We influence them when it comes to what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, where to go, who to vote for, what to share and—yes—what to think. We have a responsibility to wield this power with discretion.

To this end, we need to stop claiming brands serve a higher purpose when no such purpose exists. If we truly want to make the world a better place through marketing, sometimes the best thing a brand can do is stand to the side and allow the companies that are truly changing the world to have the spotlight they deserve.

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