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.

Dark matter: What lies between and marketing cannot see

As marketing professionals we rightly focus on moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.

And since so much else competes for time and attention in these moments, we are rightly consumed with creating the extraordinary. Whether through the products  or communications we create, we set ourselves the goal of creating moments of delight, enchantment, discovery, entertainment, surprise, provocation. Extraordinary experiences, big and small. Extraordinary moments, big and small.

But reading Jon McGregor’s remarkable new novel Reservoir 13, has prompted me to pause and reflect. McGregor’s novel traces the lives of those living in a rural community somewhere in the English Midlands. In minute and exquisite detail it follows the ebb and flow of both human life and the natural world. It is a novel about daily living, like none other.

We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments? What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday.  The habitual. The unthinking.  The familiar.  The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The uncelebrated.  The undocumented. The un-photographed. The un-photogenic. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.

This is the stuff that Alan Swindells called the ‘taken for granted world’:

For any individual consumer the world is made up of a myriad of vague ideas, thoughts, images and feelings. They come together in a loose network of meanings which shape consumer behaviour. Some of it is organised and structured but most of it is disorganised and unstructured. Some of it is thought about, rationalised and is articulate while most of it is vague, inarticulable and taken for granted.”

This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.

This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.

It may not be directly useful to the marketer. It may not lend itself to be packaged up neatly by the insight industry. It may not be a source of fascination for planning’s self-styled flâneurs. But the stuff that marketing cannot detect or observe is, it turns out, the very stuff and fabric of life and living.

Of course we are right as marketing professionals to focus on relevant moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.  But if are blind to the 95.1% that constitutes the real fabric of life, how can we possibly have empathy and love for those for whom we create?

Ordinary things,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, “have always seemed numinous to me.” If we cannot see that truth, then there is no marketing toolkit that can help us. No proprietary methodology can rescue us. We cannot research our way to empathy. Only art can help us. It is a truth that marketing in all its pragmatism, anti-intellectualism, impatience and hard-headedness must accommodate itself to. Or remain blind to the 95.1%.

Why ‘strategy’ does not exist. And everything is strategic

Ever committed to complicating things, Ad- and Marketingland have long liked to distinguish between a process called ‘strategy’ and a thing called ‘execution’. Indeed no less than Stephen King, the co-author of the account planning discipline itself, chose to distinguish between the ‘Grand Strategists’ and the ‘Advert Tweakers’:

At one extreme, there are the “grand strategists”, who are intellectual, aim to see the big picture, are a little bit above the fray, and almost economists.  At the other are the advert- tweakers, who peer myopically at advertisements, conduct groups discussions, justify creative work to sceptical clients, and are almost qualitative researchers”

Bundled up with this distinction between strategy and execution come a number of fellow-traveler assumptions – namely that strategy is theory, while the work is action; that strategy is therefore a means, while ‘the work’ is the ends; that strategy is process, while the work is an actual deliverable. King was speaking in 1988. But the assumptions and their consequences live on.

And from these assumptions it is dangerously easy to get to the assumption that strategy is but a means to work, that strategy serves the work, that strategy’s only value lies in getting to that work, and that strategy has no intrinsic value (being but theory and means) but ‘the work’ does (being actual end deliverables).

This has three undesirable effects.

First, as Richard Huntingdon has powerfully argued, treating strategy merely as means a means to an end encourages us to be pusillanimous in advocating and defending it:

Our ambivalence towards promoting and defending powerful strategy has to change. And our readiness to dumb down an idea to get it through the multiple stakeholders sitting in judgement on a positioning or purpose has to stop. We need to be as protective and proud of our strategic thinking as we are the work we make.”

Second, treating strategy as an exercise in abstraction encourages all kinds of quasi-intellectual abstractions to be indulged in, perpetuating for example, the paraphernalia of brand articulations (pyramids, onions, etc.) that do not even try to imagine what tangible action in the marketplace looks like.

It permits ‘strategy’ to be developed by those with absolutely no nose for and sense of taste in making things in the real world, allowing into the organisation Powerpoint jockeys more comfortable with holding the real world at arms’ length, rather imagining what could come next.

Most corrosively, it encourages and legitimises the silo-ing of disciplines that only realise their true potential when fully and seamlessly collaborating. And it encourages and sanctions building into organisations assumptions of primacy and hierarchy. Both get in the way of the creation of effective solutions. As Ed Catmull, cofounder and president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios has written:

Getting people in different disciplines to treat one another as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it’s much harder. Barriers include the natural class structures that arise in organisations: There always seems to be one function that considers itself and is perceived by others to be the one the organisation values the most… In a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”

So let’s rewind and go back to what strategy is. For despite the often tortured and painfully abstract arguments filling the business journals, there are voices of clarity.

Laurence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at Kings College London has argued that strategy is about

Getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.”

The business thinkers Hamel and Prahalad have contended that:

The goal of strategic intent is to fold the future back into the present. The important question is not “How will next year be different from this year?” but “What must we do differently next year to get closer to our strategic intent?”

The business consultant and author of Good Strategy Bad Strategy Richard Rumelt for his part, has written that:

The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.”

The implication is obvious. In contrast to the depiction of strategy as abstract theory detached from so-called ‘execution’, strategy is a course of action. The distinction between strategy and execution, between theory and practise, between the abstract and the concrete, thinking and doing simply does not exist.

Maintaining that it does exist might serve those who would wish to keep planners or strategists domesticated and compliant, but as Roger Martin professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests, instead we should the thinking of a single continuum of interconnected choices:

We should conceive of the corporation as a white-water river in which choices cascade from the top to the bottom. Each set of rapids is a point in the corporation where choices could be made, with each upstream choice affecting the choice immediately downstream.”

As we make our way along his cascade of choices, there is then, only question that matters – “What shall we do?”

Who we target, what we offer, how we frame the offer, where we distribute it, what price we charge for it, where, when and how we publicise and connect people to that offering, what we look like, how we behave, how we speak, how we interact… They are all choices about courses of action.                                   

So where does this get us to? When so many organisations and their effectiveness are hampered by a self-imposed rift between thinkers and doers, this perspective offers us a way out of the impasse. For if the mark of a strategy is a set of coherent actions driven by intent, it must follow that everything is strategic. Every moment represents a choice as to what to do in the world, and how to do it. And at no point in the process does the engine shift gear from theory to action. Or from abstract thinking to concrete doing. Or, heaven forbid, from ‘strategy’ to ‘creativity’.

In managing organisations and cultures we have then, a choice. We can architect and manage a business’s culture and ways of working in a way that allows for seamless choice cascades. Or not. We can acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things. Or not. We can acknowledge the interdependence of all things. Or not. 

The ambitious marketer whether on the client- or agency-side of the relationship will then need to resist our industry’s muscle memory. He or she will need to resist the pandering rhetoric of “strategy serves the work”, the relegation of strategy as but the disposable, negotiable, and contingent means to something more important, the cordoning off of so-called ‘creativity’ as a specialist discipline, the infantilization of the creative function which allows creatives to get away with being unaccountable for what happens next – (i.e. the consequences and effectiveness of their work), the institutionalised schism between the strategic and the creative processes, the artificial distinction between thinking and doing, the delineation between theory and practice, keeping planners out of the so-called ‘creative process’, keeping creatives out of the so-called ‘strategic process’, permitting the domestication of the planning function, and the assumption that planners are either ill-equipped or uninterested in taking on the most senior of leadership roles within organisations.

Yes. There is much to be resisted.

And coupled with these necessary and overdue acts of constructive resistance, the ambitious marketer will demand more strategic minds (whilst remembering that does not necessarily mean more strategists),  more people with the ability to envision the next step in the choice cascade and the consequences and opportunities of their choices, and more high-performance team players rather mere collaboration lip-service payers.

And perhaps above all the ambitious marketer will recall the words of  Stanley Pollitt – who along with Stephen King was the co-author of the account planning discipline – when he wrote that planning meant “a total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs”:

Getting it right being more important than maximising agency profits, than keeping clients happy, or building an agency shop window for distinctive-looking advertising.”



Gary Hamel. & C.K. Prahalad, ‘Strategic Intent’, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989

Richard Huntingdon, ‘Stand up for strategy

Stephen King,’ Strategic Development of Brands’, Speech at the 20th Anniversary of the founding of Account Planning, APG One Day Event, July 1988

Roger L. Martin, The Execution Trap, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010