The Blog

The Pursuit of Purpose and the Bono Problem

"You can't predict destiny, that's the beauty" sounds like a cross between a line from a John Lennon song and a pre-battle speech from Braveheart. It's actually a line from a new Wrigley's Orbit ad.

Now there's a sound enough thought at the heart of the spots: gum freshens your breath, making you more confident and prepared in the process. And yet the end result feels like yet another example of a brand grasping for a lofty sense of purpose in an attempt to get people to buy their stuff.

They're not alone of course. Other brands exhaustively pursue purpose. It has led to an arms race for abstract ideals. "You make fizzy, sugary brown water? No problem. We probably shouldn't talk about the water, or the sugar, so how about talking about 'happiness' instead?" Abstract ideals are being snapped up by brands. UBS recently asked a question of biblical significance: 'Am I a Good Father?' Big question UBS.

These concepts are often so lofty as to be completely separate from what's actually being sold - a fizzy drink, a bank account, a sandwich. It's becoming predictable and inauthentic. 'Purpose driven' brands have often become disconnected from reality, and in the process are producing increasingly bad creative work. Brands have wrongly become embarrassed about what they do: selling goods and services in a consumer economy.

And most consumers don't give a damn about brand purpose. In fact Havas Media have highlighted that if 74 percent of brands vanished tomorrow, no one would care. The vast majority of us are indifferent to brands and promiscuous in our habits. As Bob Hoffman put it 'most Pepsi 'loyalists' would switch over to Coke with very little psychological damage. Nike devotees would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab.'

Even the most successful example of brand purpose doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. Dove Real Beauty challenged the idea that beauty was the preserve of skinny 6ft something models. Sales for products in the ads duly increased 600 percent in the first two months of the campaign. Yet success came from smart creative and good timing. It didn't come merely from the adoption a purpose. (Dove Real Beauty emerged in 2004, after a badly executed but similar effort by the UK clothing chain Marks and Spencer. And since Dove Real Beauty, there have been numerous copycat brands that have tried to adopt the 'purpose' of natural beauty and failed.)

Studies into purpose don't hold up either. Former P&G Global CMO, Jim Stengel's book 'Grow' has apparently shown a relationship between financial performance and purpose driven businesses. Stengel looked at 50 brands based on excellent financial performance, and tried to discern commonalities. From a sampling perspective this is like 'trying to learn about blood pressure by only looking at a small group of patients who all have high blood pressure'. Naturally Stengel found each brand selected had a strong purpose at its core, yet as Byron Sharp has meticulously shown, the study is badly flawed.

Of course there was a time when businesses didn't have to talk about purpose. They more or less got on with it. The 'purpose' of industry was obvious - it created jobs and produced products. For industrialists like Ford, Rockefeller or Cadbury, purpose was borne out of a deep-seated and often religious respect for the value of work and industry. In and of itself, that was a noble end. The idea of 'progress' made sense.

Amidst financial and environmental calamity, marketers understandably feel uneasy about the idea of industry as a purpose in and of itself. Yet brand purpose is going the way of Bono. Sure, purpose can occasionally help you stand out, and undeniably does some good. But people are becoming fed up with brands using messianic, world-shaking language. Often they just want you to get back to what you do best.

This isn't about attacking purpose in business generally; this isn't about making an argument for the pursuit of short-term purpose. It's about highlighting that the endless pursuit of purpose as a creative device is becoming tired and hackneyed.

Interestingly Coca-Cola seems to have abandoned their stake in the word 'happiness', for a simpler focus on the product they're actually trying to flog. And why not? Occasionally I will buy some fizzy brown water. Brands shouldn't be ashamed of dropping the pretense of purpose, and (whisper it) actually trying to sell you their product. Advertisers should do the same.