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Must Every Purpose Be Good?

Business thinkers agree it's good to have a purpose, but should firms always aim for praiseworthy goals?

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Business thinkers agree it's good to have a purpose, but should firms always aim for praiseworthy goals?

Opinions

Must Every Purpose Be Good?

Business thinkers agree it's good to have a purpose, but should firms always aim for praiseworthy goals?

Share this article

There’s been much talk in recent years about ‘purpose’ and the need for brands to understand and express their social good.

We’ve had Sinnek’s circles, the IPA Presidents Prize for Good, countless books and recently, a fascinating APG event dissecting the subject.

It’s become Business As Usual for brands to interrogate, articulate and communicate their purpose beyond making profit. Often to very good effect.

But for every Dove redefining beauty and self-esteem, there are legions of other brands claiming to ‘connect communities and realise their true potential’ or ‘serve and make a genuine difference to everyday lives in Britain’. Sigh.

Like any wave sweeping the industry, as purpose takes hold and spreads, its power to create distinctiveness dissipates.

And core to the problem is the little benign word ‘good’.

Marketing has conflated the notion of ‘purpose’ with the idea of ‘social good’, and assumes they are inseparable. The received wisdom is that purpose driven marketing axiomatically implies some kind of deeper societal good.

The danger being that ‘making the world a better place’ becomes the road map for any and every brand purpose expression. Pepsi and Kendall Jenner are obvious collateral damage of this confusion.

Various studies purport to show good purpose is an effective driver of good business. But what these analyses haven’t fully considered is why that’s the case, leaving us to leap to the presumption that it’s the goodness per se doing most of the work.

A rudimentary grasp of human nature tells me that can’t always be the case.

Analysis for one of my clients identified an audience of 17m UK adults who actively care about social issues, the remaining 74% paying it various degrees of lip service.

If the Ice Bucket Challenge taught us one thing, it’s that the rallying power of an idea can be substantially bigger than the goodness inherent in it.

And consider the battle between construction equipment brand JCB and global giant Caterpillar. During the 80s and 90s, the entire JCB organisation rallied around the clear, singular purpose; ‘Kill Cat’.

It strikes me the critical point is the amazing power of clear, well-articulated purposes to rally. They do this via tools we are familiar with; by being clever, sharp, thought provoking, profoundly true, distinctive, sympathetic, fun, challenging, inspiring, emotional, counter intuitive and, yes, by doing social good.

The point is they need to be ‘good’, in the sense of exceptional, outstanding and incomparable, while not necessarily ‘good’, in the meaning of worthwhile, righteous and valuable.

Harley Davidson exists to help men rebel. You could debate whether that creates or destroys social good, but you can’t deny its relevance to a certain audience segment or to the brand.

A company describing itself as an enabler that connects the world with digital payment technology might be better off with a purpose like ‘creating trust amongst strangers’. Not because that confers more implicit good, but simply because it avoids the vanilla ‘connections, communities and co-operation’ conventions that dog this discipline.

Likewise, ‘This Girl Can’ navigated around the agenda of ‘inspiring and empowering more women to take part in sport’, by embracing the fact that some women feel judged by the way they look during sport.

The semantic re-definition of ‘good’ plays to our industry’s strengths. We are, after all, expert at creating distinctiveness. Something that the laddering-up-to-good process desperately needs help with.

Richard Storey is global chief strategy officer at M&C Saatchi.

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Must Every Purpose Be Good?

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