What lies behind the rhetoric of brand ‘Purpose’?

Richard Shotton has already dismantled the lazy logic that suggests there is a relationship between purpose and business performance.

The case for more perspective and greater humility has been made by Gareth Kay.

I want to offer just one more line of critique. 

Namely that if a business or brand tells you that it wants to help solve a big problem in the world, or that is has a higher purpose than simply selling stuff, or that it wants to make the world a better place, then marketing’s claims, promises, and manifestos are not what we should be interrogating.

Instead, we should be looking at where it sources its raw materials from

… its manufacturing processes

… its sustainability practices

… its employment practices

… its pension provisions

… its safety practices and policies

… its approach to workplace diversity

… its stance on worker representation

… its treatment of workplace whistleblowers

… its policy on pay equality

… its attitudes towards job automation

… its commitment to employee re-training

… how it compensates its senior management,

… what its incentivises senior management for

… its business practices

… how it treats its suppliers and partners

… its stance on corporate governance

… how it treats customer data

… how it protects customers’ privacy

… what it does with its profits

… what proportion of its profits go to civic or social good programmes

… if and where it chooses to pay corporate tax

… what legislation it lobbies for

… its political party donations

… how it defines success

… and how well all of this is aligned with its stated Purpose.

In other words if a business tells us that that it is driven by a world-changing purpose, we should enquire whether the entire organisation is pointed at that Purpose. Or just the marketing department, its agency, and its advertising.


  1. Simon Neate-Stidson

    To be fair, though, Shotton only dismantled Stengel’s case (for a brand’s stated purpose to positively affect business performance), not the issue itself, no?

    Mind you, i totally agree with your notion that our scrutiny needs to be broader than simply marketing. 😊



    • John

      I don’t think anyone’s proven it. Unilever can bang on about how their brands with purpose outperform the others, but there’s no consideration of how they would have performed without said purpose or the fact that employees might be inclined to work harder on the brands that the bosses are backing. And don’t get me started on the irrelevance of share price as an indocator of business success.

    • Martin Weigel

      Depends what you think the issue is. For me, the issue is whether or not Purpose is mere marketing fluff or organizational, ethical, and moral commitment. Glad we didn’t discuss this on the boat though! Would have ruined a perfect day!

  2. Ben

    And if the interrogation surfaces good evidence that the organization is, in fact, living with purpose instead of just marketing fluff? If its values are manifest in many aspects of its operations and governance? Or if it is not fully realized in all dimensions, but in many?

  3. Seb

    I totally agree with embodying your “purpose” beyond the marketing, which I believe is the point of this article.

    But at the beginning of the article, there is a flaw in the approach (as well in Shotton’s article). Using the world brand purpose as “Doing something for the greater good”. A strong purpose doesn’t need to be a “greater good for the world” purpose OR otherwise just be selling stuff. I could make shoes and have the strong purpose of “doing the most comfortable shoe experience ever” or “create the most stylish pair of shoes commoners can afford”. Not going to change the world, but still a strong purpose that will definitely focus your business if you stick to it (and if you are right to follow that purpose).

  4. cheet01

    Thanks for the provocation, Martin! Always good to think through things with you. – Ted

    Seb correctly points out that it’s important to define our terms. Purpose is not Corporate Social Responsibility and the solid list of CSR activities you compile. It can be. But doesn’t have to be. It’s easy to make that mistake.

    Stengel’s methodology fails both by arguing from conclusions and tying purpose to performance as share price. But a bad diagnosis of a patient doesn’t mean the patient is dead or never existed.

    So let’s reground and kick this off with a couple verifiable propositions.

    1) Purpouse is the unifying “why” behind a group effort (a la Sinek)

    2) This could be ‘virtuous’ like fighting bullying against girls, body image issues or packaging pollution.

    3) but it could be ‘wrong’ or ‘mischievous’ like getting the world to lighten up and fuck around more with Cheetos. Or to get you to think tomorrow is overrated and tequila binge or to celebrate villains a bit and buy a Jag.

    4) A purpose doesn’t need to be universal – a world where everyone eats nothing but Cheetos is a bad world, but a world where everyone’s so anal that indulgent snacks are outlawed is a shittier world than one in which Cheetos exist.

    5) you should be able to disagree with a purpose – we defined gay marriage as “Wholesome” for Honey Maid graham crackers. REI defined Black Friday consumerism as shitty compared to a hike. Purpose is a stance around shared values some don’t share.

    6) not having a stated purpouse does not mean you don’t have one – maximizing profits and shareholder value is the (in places, legally binding) obligation of CEOs making that the default purpose of the modern corporation.

    So the question is – is it ever better to chose to explicitly aspire to something other than making money?

    Can making your purpose known internally drive operational excellence in terms of recruitment, motivation, rallying around a unified and clear goal, retention, satisfaction and ultimately efficiency and productivity?

    Can making your purpose known externally drive earned media, social engagement, brand love, purchase and loyalty above and beyond the alternative (which would be what…if not just a commodity proposition?)

    In my experience purpose pays. Helping Prudential take on a retirement crisis (Titanium Lion) and celebrating the love all parents have for their kids (Gold Effectiveness Lion – Honey Maid) were some highlights in my career. And sources of real pride inside my client companies. And marketer of the year awards for my CMOs and brand managers.

    REI was able to prove this to the Effie judges. As was Always Throw Like A Girl.

    When we said Doritos’ purpose was to give young people a stage on which to be bold we acted on that and opened up the Super Bowl and invited anyone to make their own ads. Then we proved they could win top spot and paid them a million bucks. Felt great! Got massive PR. Sold chips. Won awards.

    Don’t want anyone to get upset by my final observation but I always find it strange when the “does purpose work!?” conversation comes up.

    Anyone who has made their “why” fun, human, timely, honest and creative knows that purpose pays off in loving your job, the satisfaction of legitimate collaboration with your peers and the appreciation of your customers and audiences. It feels like making history not just headlines and reaffirms that we are all living for something greater than ourselves. And it challenges every stakeholder to avoid charges of inconsistency or hypocrisy by, err, becoming more consistent and not being hypocrites.

    Finally it’s great to see these purposeful platforms extend for and keep paying for years, even after the original team has moved on. Because the purpose is clear, compelling and magnetic.

    I’d go one further.

    You can’t have a brand without purpose. The only choice is if you want your brand to be shallow and conventional for fear of not being able to live up to something more real.

    Or something more real.

    • Martin Weigel

      My definition of terms was quite specific.
      “If a business or brand tells you that it wants to help solve a big problem in the world, or that is has a higher purpose than simply selling stuff, or that it wants to make the world a better place”
      The critique holds.
      Thanks for the regrounding though.
      Some good points.