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Purposes, PURPOSES

Every brand makes a promise. A promise to do something for people. Functionally, emotionally, ideally both.

If it delivers on that promise, you have the basis for trust. If it doesn’t, you don’t. Simple.

So beyond that, why does a brand need a purpose?

Not long ago, the debate in marketing was about what the word actually meant. Plenty of people had a go at a definition:

“What a brand was created to do.”

“Its essential reason for being.”

“Why you do what you do.”

“How you’re going to improve people’s lives.”

“How you’re going to change the the world for the better.”

The best I could come up with is it’s your motive. And as in any good storytelling, true motive gets revealed when you come under the greatest pressure.

But I’ve always had this nagging worry about the real motive behind purpose.

Partly, it’s because everyone is forever wheeling out the same old examples - Dove, Nike, Starbucks and Coke. It does make you suspect there aren’t too many other success stories yet.

It’s also because everyone puts forward the same evidence, generally an extract from an Edelman’s Brandshare report that says something like: “Big percentage of people want a meaningful relationship with brands.” Or: “Even bigger percentage of people want to do business with companies that share their beliefs.”

The thing is, I really want to believe this. As someone who has always felt brands have to create an emotional connection with people, one based on satisfying their deeper needs, it sounds like music to my ears. I also love a higher-order benefit, just as long as we’re not talking about going into orbit.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, too, if all companies felt they had a reason to exist in the world beyond making a profit.

But it’s the way half the advertising industry now has this passion for all things purpose. Can we persuade the client to make a purpose film this year? Where’s our opportunity to do a ‘Fearless Girl’?

So much of this content seems noble in intent but generic in nature. So often there’s no distinctiveness. Where’s the link to the brand? Can you remember who ‘Fearless Girl’ was actually for? Someone said to me recently they all look like charity ads.

And of course there’s the argument of ‘don’t you get it, the world is different now’. The withering, patronising look. In the past it might have been enough to make a promise and deliver on it, but not now. Now there’s a whole group of people (I’ve heard them called ‘Corp-sumers’) who think a company’s actions and values are as important as the products it makes. Simon Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Purpose as the reason why you do something rather than the reason for which it is done.

The rogue’s gallery keeps on growing too. Volkswagen, Amazon, SportsDirect, Ryanair, Uber. Does it make any difference, though? Over 750,000 signatures on the petition to revoke Uber’s London ban.

More to the point, does it justify every other brand riding headlong into the Valley of Purpose? At least people now agree a purpose isn’t simply sticking a CSR programme on the side of your brand, like go-faster stripes.

And purpose, at its heart, still has a desire to offer people something not just of value but of meaning. So you could argue that it’s all part of a bigger search for meaning in life among all sorts of people. Which, of course, includes those working in marketing departments and agencies.

Maybe that’s why somewhere in the back of my mind is that quote from Bill Bernbach: “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business”.

So maybe being purpose-driven is absolutely fine as long as you really do mean it and, of course, it works. A purpose is still a promise that you are making. It just has higher stakes and is harder to keep.

But if all it does is make you feel better about what you do for a living, which is, bottom-line, selling things to people, maybe Bill’s right and you’re in the wrong game.

It’s like that other famous ad man quote, the one by Jacques Séguéla: “Don’t tell my mother I’m in advertising, she thinks I’m a piano player in a brothel.”

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