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The PURPOSE dilemma

When should a brand’s social purpose become its positioning?

I don’t mean its advertising message, I mean the whole thing.

That’s the way we seem to be heading at the moment. But there’s a catch and it’s a big one.

A couple of cases in point from the world of detergents.

Unilever’s Persil is one of the best examples of being purpose-driven that you’ll find. ‘Dirt Is Good’ is now so central to the brand that it’s on the front of the pack.

The original thinking behind the strategy was inspired. The benefit of all washing detergents is to remove dirt. But increasingly parents were thinking it was their job to keep their children clean.

So Persil took it on themselves to remind parents that dirt is good - “especially when it’s the result of your kids going out into the world to have fun, explore, learn and experience the very best of the world around us.”

It’s the value of experiential learning and talks straight to the need to nurture your child’s development.

And, of course, it sells more detergent, the real purpose. Although you get a hint of the trouble brewing for the brand with its new ‘tough on stains, kinder to our planet’ message.

Contrast that with a new brand like Smol. They also sell washing detergent, alongside a range of other cleaning products.

The company was started in 2018 by two former Unilever employees, Paula Quazi and Nick Green.

Smol makes a host of claims - eco-friendly, D2C, plastic-free, cruelty-free, vegan, “lower levels of added chemicals per wash with no loss of cleaning performance”.

Sales have doubled in 2021, there are plans to expand into new products and markets and they’ve raised $42m from backers. Some of the latest funding came from the founders of Innocent.

If you were going to sum up the brand’s purpose, you might say ‘Smol is beautiful’.

But do you know what their latest campaign is? Wash clothes less. Cut down on detergent purchases.

Of course, they’re right. That is how to protect the environment. Most people don’t get their clothes dirty. It’s just become a habit throwing them into the washing basket every night.

But I’m not sure this is a great way to build a business, not a profitable one. I suspect it may be more about building a brand to be sold. Maybe Paula and Nick already know someone who'd like to buy it.

So that’s the dilemma with purpose. Sell you a product or save you a world.

And saying you do both, in the end, won’t wash.


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