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Max Lenderman
"Has Brand Purpose Lost Its Luster?" By Max Lenderman
March 15, 2023 12:13 PM
Featured Author:
Max Lenderman

Five years ago in an advertising trade magazine, I wrote a column asking if brand purpose had “jumped the shark.” As the founder and CEO of a purpose marketing consultancy, I was reacting to a Saturday Night Live skit that featured brand managers of Cheetos being pitched by rival agencies. One of the agencies just wants to show kids having fun and snacking; the other agency pitches increasingly absurd purpose-centered advertising tropes like immigration, racial inclusiveness, and transgender rights while touting the cheesiness (no pun intended) of the Cheetos brand. This skewering of purpose-washed commercials was a bit too much on the nose.

Half a decade later, I may again ask if we are in another “jump the shark” moment. Just the other day, I watched a PNC Financial Services ad parroting almost verbatim the “what’s your why” TED Talk by Simon Sinek – the 18-minutes of video that launched a million corporate purpose restatements. A Hellman’s Mayonnaise Super Bowl spot touted the brand’s purpose of tackling food waste and starred NFL great Jerod Mayo who, um, tackled people who were about to waste food. According to Paul Hiebert’s story in Adweek on June 15, angry investors in parent company Unilever accused the company of being “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”

Has brand purpose lost its luster? Or as Hiebert puts it better, is brand purpose in hibernation? Yes…and no.

Yes. Companies have had two-plus years on pandemic-focused messaging, leaving audiences increasingly blasé to corporate self-congratulation. Coming out of the pandemic, brands’ messaging focused on optimistic consumption. Purpose-centered ads don’t sell as much stuff as fun, creative and celebrity-filled ones. And today’s inflation is driving consumers to prioritize price over purpose credentials, anyway.

No. Countless survey and studies point to consumer desire to buy and support brands that help people, their communities and society at large. That isn’t going away. But the methods that brands and companies use to manifest purpose are indeed changing.

I’ve often said that there are three ways that a brand or company can actualize its purpose: story-telling, story-doing and story-being. Most of brand purpose has so far been messaged and communicated in culture as cause-based advertising campaigns, philanthropy partnerships and PR-able CSR initiatives. This is purpose story-telling.

Brand purpose can be further activated by corporations and companies taking a stand and doing something tangible, measurable and sometimes controversial in culture. In modern marketing, brands doing things is becoming more important than brands saying things. If brand story-telling seeks to explain a better feature or a benefit, story-doing posits that the brand is better experienced than explained. The same applies to that brand’s purpose. Doing purposeful deeds in culture and enrolling lots of people into the mission is what I would call purpose-doing.

Thankfully, businesses are moving beyond solely touting their purpose. Now, the effort is to make purpose more systemic, employee-centric and immune to accusations of purpose-washing. Brand purpose is no longer something you just message; it’s how that purpose is activated by the people inside the brand and received by people who buy it.

Purpose isn’t a campaign; it’s an ethos. And brands should look to evolve the activation of purpose from simply story-telling and into story-doing. AirBnB has moved its purpose of creating belonging from humble beginnings of supporting refugees causes to blocking bookings in Washington D.C. on January 6th to instituting corporate-wide work-from-anywhere after COVID to allowing its platform to be a direct conduit for contributions for Ukrainians at war. It is doing its purpose, and customers respond with more bookings on its platform versus the competition.

Touting purpose through marketing campaigns and messages has become a tried-and-true mechanic for brands to build audiences and share of voice. Just take a look at all the purpose-forward work that recently won at Cannes. But to stay relevant going forward, brands need to move beyond thinking about the purpose story and instead systematically activate purpose internally and in culture through things that require doing rather than telling.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on July 7th, 2022.

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