Are Brand Purpose and CSR Just More Marketing BS?
(Reposted from my original article on Medium.)
There has been much hype made over “brand purpose” and corporate social responsibility (CSR) in recent times and these ideas have, for better or worse, changed the world of marketing.
First, let’s talk about brand purpose. What does that mean?
Well, in a practical and logical sense, it is why your brand exists. But, as Skyword points out in the infographic below, that meaning has evolved over time.
(Image Courtesy: Evolving Meaning of Branding courtesy of Skyword | The Content Standard)
Thousands of years ago, the definition was a lot more practical and easier to understand. Branding an item let others know who it belonged to, such as livestock, or who made it — as often the case with pottery, art, and so forth.
Later, during the Industrial Revolution, as consumer choices expanded beyond what was locally produced, branding was used to identify nationally mass-produced items to give them a stamp of quality and identity.
Then came the television and the Mad Men era. Leveraging this new format, the Don Drapers of the world figured out how to appeal to consumers in a whole new way — using emotion.
This was a big change and launched what we think of in terms of modern marketing. We started giving products human attributes and crafting ads to appeal to more than just the functional benefits. We started telling stories.
But, even then brand marketing was still largely about the functional benefits of products and companies and how that made you feel.
If you sold laundry detergent, your brand purpose was still most likely to offer a great, safe product that worked, at a price consumers were able to buy near them, and were willing to pay for it. You might promise that your detergent would get clothes cleaner and whiter, they would smell great, and your family would thank you for how great your shirts looked, felt and smelled (even if it all came off a little misogynistic, but hey… MAGA, right?).
So, now that we’ve blazed through a brief history of branding and misogyny in advertising, I need to get back to the point of what “brand purpose” means today.
This Afdhel Aziz article does a nice job outlining the difference between brand purpose and a lot of the other corporate terms, and how to help find your brand purpose, but I have a slightly different take, because after observing years of this trend, I’m more inclined to question the authenticity of many of the “best” examples.
I personally think brand purpose is newer fabricated concept to derive a higher meaning to a company’s mission statement, vision, and values. It is too often a virtue signalling badge worn to differentiate and appeal to a specific audience in an oversaturated market.
You might be thinking, “Wait… having purpose to your brand sounds good. Why the passive aggressive jab at it?”
Well, stick with me while I explain. In short, I do believe having a brand purpose is important to business and can resonate on an emotional level with customers, employees, board members, and recruits.
But, I also believe the term brand purpose is often being confused with sustainability or corporate responsibility, and it usually crafted in some lofty language the entirely misses the point of why a publicly traded company, product, or brand exists — generally to solve a problem or need in a market and in turn, make a profit for its stakeholders.
Mark Ritson, who I think of as the Gordon Ramsay of marketing (crass and unapologetic, but not entirely wrong), calls this bullsh*t around 12min into this great talk (Warning: lots of NSFW language) on what matters and doesn’t in marketing.
So where did the idea brand purpose come from and why are companies embracing this philosophy?
Many may point to Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TED Talk as ground zero for brand purpose. In Sinek’s (albeit powerful) talk, he attributes the success of leaders and companies like Apple to the way they communicate why they do what they do — their purpose. Sinek repeats and reinforces the idea that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
Sinek isn’t alone in this thought, either. Many of the CEOs of the most profitable and well-known companies in the world operate under the mantra of higher purpose.
“To be truly successful, companies need to have a corporate mission that is bigger than making a profit.” — Marc Benioff, Salesforce.
So, is brand purpose the key to success?
I am a believer that it helps, but in no way do I believe that it is the #1 driver, or guaranteed success, largely because I think many are wrong about what Simon is saying.
Don’t get me wrong, I have personally pointed to this TED Talk many times in arguing how to position a brand, product or message. When used properly, it helps find their north star and the right authentic story to tell. But, here’s the argument for what’s missing… data that proves a direct linkage to success.
Yes, there are tons of articles and books, such as Jim Stengel’s “Grow,” pointing to data suggesting that brands with higher purpose are more successful. The problem lies in that the research methodology lends itself more to confirmation bias and correlation rather than causation.
The success of billion dollar companies is far too complex to pin their financial success to an ideal or mantra that many employees, much less customers, may not even know about. Case in point, I have been a Salesforce customer in the past, and I absolutely love Benioff’s commitment to do something good in the world, but my decision to subscribe to their product had nothing to do with that. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even aware of his altruistic mission. My organization’s decision to go with Salesforce was because it was a great product, and market leader that had more functionality than my organization even needed, for a reasonable price.
On the flip, sure, I occasionally shop at REI and will pay their higher prices, because I love their purpose and approach to business. I also like the products they carry and the people who work there. I think that they have found a great niche, and believe their mission and purpose has attracted employees and customers who share similar values, because their values are rooted in so deep, they embody their purpose in everything they do. It feels authentic.
So, my issue with the list that Stengel and others point to as examples for brand purpose as indicator of success is a strong one, but most of the list features companies which were millions (or billions) of dollar companies long before they may have revamped their brand purpose to be some uplifting feel-good message. Also, a few have since folded or been acquired — which becomes tricky, because can you still claim to operate under your higher purpose when your parent company may be a massive conglomerate bordering on monopoly?
By the way, there are undoubtedly countless brands with strong purposes beyond profit that have failed miserably. And, without a doubt many of the largest, most profitable companies in the world don’t pass a scrupulous moral sniff test when it comes to their brand purpose. Opponents and activists will claim these companies and corporate raiders destroy lives, our environment, cause addiction, cancer, obesity, and more in the name of billions of dollars in profits. Ironically enough, the mission and brand purposes of those NGOs and watchdog entities seem to exist “to make the world a better and safer place” strictly through the spread of an often mis-informed agenda, lobbying, and litigation with the intent to destroy all “big business” at any cost.
Where does that leave us with brand purpose, then?
In most cases, it feels like marketing bs that newly minted Chief Sustainability Officers come up with to make employees and consumers feel better about dark past truths, or charging $300 for a white tee shirt that costs less than your gluten free lunch from Whole Foods to make.
In other words, it’s a lie.
Sorry, I mean, it’s a story, which you as a consumer can choose to believe or not.
In Seth Godin’s book, All Marketers Are Liars, he breaks down the stories marketers tell (and consumers believe), but the key component to success he points out is authenticity. If you talk about your making the world a better place through producing sustainable and ethical goods and services, but it turns out you operate sweatshops in China, or promote employees who contribute to a toxic workplace culture — you will be found out.
In this era, there are no shortcuts.
However, if you truly embrace your brand purpose — let that flag fly. Let employees, consumers, and the world know it. Lead by example, not through talk.
I think a strong brand purpose is a great way to attract talented employees and genuinely thoughtful humans, who in turn will do more for your business than any concocted statement.
Make it a part of your DNA. Live it everyday.
The key however is to put your money, effort, and time where your mouth is.
Benioff not only personally donates millions to charity and good works, it’s ingrained in his company through their 1–1–1 policy, and they stay the course. Therefore, it doesn’t come off as “thirsty” or unauthentic when you see a story in the news of them doing something good that just isn’t about profit.
Funny enough, I started a draft of this article over 2 years ago, but a friend sharing Ritson’s video (thanks, Hal!) and this recent Drum article talking about the hypocrisy of brand purpose at Cannes this year are what prompted me to dust it off and finish it. There are just so many fakes out there. It’s not hard to spot these days and you know it’s going to backfire, so why fake it?
The next time you want to create a campaign to highlight how your company or brand cares, make sure it’s coming from a place of authenticity and true empathy— get your hands dirty in that stock photo soil. Get bottom-up awareness, support and participation and live those mantras in your day-to-day business every day.
So, go forth and do good things… EARN the right to talk about them.
That higher purpose is what will ultimately attract (and keep) the best employees, agencies, work, products, and loyal customers. And, in the end, that’s what truly makes a business successful.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments, so please chime in!