The False Binary of Purpose vs. Profit Is Setting Us Back

By Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel

Conscious marketing is facing renewed scrutiny as marketers face growing pressures and uncertainties in the next year. With tensions in culture rising, “purpose” is again being questioned as an unwelcome hindrance to profit-making. Forrester’s team of B2C marketing analysts now predicts that next year, “practicality” is set to take over purpose altogether, with CMOs focusing on profitable growth while sidelining purpose-driven decisions. The report even predicts that as many as 9 out of 10 mainstream brands “will go quiet” on social issues in the upcoming year.

The shift in attitude toward social responsibility is palpable. Skeptics have been quick to use the “purpose” and “profit” binary to frame conscious marketing as a kind of ‘intruder’ in the business world—a guest that has now, it seems, overstayed its welcome. As budgets get trimmed, and marketers increasingly feel revenue pressures mount, brands now might “steer clear” of social causes altogether or, at the very least, not become “too purposeful.”

In this difficult environment, it can certainly become tempting to see conscious marketing as a more impractical or distracting choice—or even something outright “pointless.” Too little is said, however, about how juxtaposing purpose and profit is precisely what is setting us back in this moment. The recent fixation on proving that not all brands actually need social accountability—and that everyday products like mayonnaise should not have to “save the world”—reveals an alarming misunderstanding of what conscious marketing is and what it isn’t.

For one, conscious marketing was never meant to be about simply burdening every product imaginable with the impossible task of saving the world or “tainting” just any brand with irrelevant social agendas. Instead, socially conscious marketing, when executed well, invites brands to deeply understand how their brand is implicated in the social world and consider what it might mean to drive profits more ethically and sustainably with this awareness in mind.

Creative campaigns highlighting social issues or identity-specific concerns make sense for some brands. For others, less direct but nevertheless still socially conscious efforts to make brands more inclusive and sustainable might be more appropriate. Consider how cleaning brand Blueland makes sustainability its entire reason for existing as a brand. Another household brand, however, might still make purpose-driven efforts, such as switching to sustainable packaging, without also making it their entire brand identity. Put another way, there are different ways of doing business with purpose. Rather than a narrow tunnel vision of either purpose of profit, the practice of conscious marketing as such ought to offer brands a spectrum of possibilities for commercially successful outcomes that are also more ethical.

The danger of either/or thinking lies precisely in such narrow, constricting perspectives. It forecloses innovative alternatives to what is or what has always been—and most importantly, what could be. In the binary of “purpose” vs. “profit,” there is no middle ground and too little space for nuance. Dichotomous thinking prevents innovation and thwarts any real opportunities for new solutions to age-old problems. Thinking in binaries can actually make us too comfortable with the idea that we have it all figured out: it’s either this or that, one or the other. This leaves too little room for humility, ambivalence, and the willingness to acknowledge that we might not have it all figured out, just yet.

This sense of ambivalence doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Uncertainty and lack of self-evident solutions are precisely where new ideas, innovations, and new ways of doing business arise. Of course, the pendulum might still swing back “toward business results and humor” after all, as “the dramatic shift” to purpose-driven marketing in recent years is ostensibly seen as “going a bit too far.” But as conscientious marketers in a culture-defining industry, we owe it to ourselves to think more critically about what “too far” might imply in the context of the last three years, when the industry eagerly pledged to a complete overhaul of its many oppressive legacies and persisting exclusionary practices.

Within this context, every brand, whether purpose-driven or not, still bears the responsibility of rectifying historical imbalances and biases by integrating and normalizing narratives and perspectives traditionally overlooked and marginalized within the industry. As cultural actors, all brands continue to be implicated in shaping culture—our way of life—by virtue of telling stories at scale, producing and disseminating messaging through mass media, and, thus, yielding an immense influence on people’s perceptions, behaviors, and everyday lives. And so any brand going to market with an offering is responsible for delivering socially responsible messaging that does not cause harm. Doing anything less would mean knowingly perpetuating existing systems that exclude and marginalize. This nuance—the cost of simply forsaking social consciousness for the sake of profit-making—is glaringly missing from the perspectives of those who would prefer that brands just get back to being “funny.”

To say nothing of the fact that the long-term commercial cost of dropping purpose is surprisingly overlooked as well. Despite concerns about potential backlash stemming from isolated instances of brands that failed to act on social purpose successfully, research continues to show that purpose remains a driver of commercial success. Just last week, Bain & Company released a new study concluding that brands that scored higher on ESG-related values achieved five times the revenue growth of those that scored the lowest. It is in taking purpose seriously—not simply dropping it—and doing it well that brands can avoid backlash and prevent accusations of performativity by closing the gap between perception and actions.

When it comes to advertisers’ social responsibility in today’s culture, there is simply no exit door in sight. In the next few years, environmental and social tensions will not vanish but only intensify. Figuring out how to navigate the instability without losing sight of ethical values in this moment will only fortify and help brands be prepared for potentially even tougher business challenges ahead. Forward-thinking brands will discern this current reality and harness the underlying potential of the moment we’re in. Rather than succumbing to fear and getting rid of purpose altogether, brands of the future will recognize this as an opportunity to be agile, resilient, and innovative in an increasingly complicated and unpredictable world that offers no easy answers and where binaries are no longer enough.

About the Author

Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel is a cultural theorist, strategist, and social critic. Currently a cultural intelligence lead at Reddit, she is the author of Cultural Intelligence for Marketers: Building an Inclusive Marketing Strategy (Kogan Page; March 2024).