The worst kind of brand purpose
A short rant against an enduring viral strategy trend.
The worst kind of brand purpose is the one that ignores how the business makes money.
Work needs to be actionable. As in - there need to be clear actions that can be taken based on the work you do. For a strategist, that’s normally either a green light to an approach, a creative briefing, a presentation, or ideally production of work.
But it’s possible to live an entire strategy career in the clouds, never actually making anything but adding a lot of perceived value by talking about the brand, the business, the meaning and the intentions in terms that never quite reach a rubber / road moment of contact.
This is a large part of why advertising is broken, right now. The complete disconnect between the “what does it mean” people, and the “how did it work” people. (I know, I say this a lot.)
So I suppose we need to talk about why this disconnect exists and how it can be repaired. And most of that comes down to strategy that’s only actionable up to a point.
I’ve been the creative strategy big brand guy (and loved it, TBH). But when the strategy is “we exist to inspire honesty” and your job is to find a way to translate that to conversion in the lower sales funnel… there’s no real point of overlap. When all your strategy talks about is purpose, the ‘why’ of motivation, you end up in a weird area of denial that ignores the fundamental truth of every brand - the why is money, and everything else is, to some extent, window dressing.
I see this in complaints about Patagonia (the current standard bearer for purpose) admitting it still needs to pack / ship products in plastic, because the product would be much more likely to be damaged, and that has economic and environmental costs. They made a very compelling point that about 30% of products are damaged, but they also didn’t really discuss that eliminating plastic polybags (but changing nothing else about the process) is a pretty unreasonable test.
Purpose was trumped by performance and profit. And I guarantee it’s happening on anything you work on, every day. That’s not a sign that purpose is wrong. It’s evidence that purpose without a consideration of the realities of the business (and the world) will lead you astray.
When Patagonia changed its public facing purpose to “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet” they captured a lot of moral high ground but lost (for me, at least) a lot of logical credibility.
This is why, for my money, the best piece of brand purpose writing ever, belongs to Nike.
Nike’s mission is: to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
*if you have a body, you are an athlete
This matters because, baked into it, are 2 important results-driven thoughts: 1) we will use functional and emotional benefits to grow in the athletics market, and 2) we will get every living human to see themselves as our target. (I habitually refer to this, btw, as the greatest asterisk in the history of marketing.)
If we take this as an example for Patagonia, they might have restated their purpose as: Patagonia will equip everyone to experience our natural world.
The fact is, Patagonia is not in business to save our home planet. Our home planet does not need cozy fleece zip-ups. Patagonia needs to save our home planet, so adventuring can still happen, so they can stay in business. A more honest formulation, tends to lead to more actionable ideas.
You can’t really craft a conversion-driven ad against a purpose of “all consumption destroys nature”, but you can definitely craft one against “see why our world is worth saving.”
Plus, this kind of thinking comes in handy when you need a better argument for how you will drive ROI than “people will feel good about us”.
(Note: I actually really adore much of Patagonia’s product and advertising. And yes, I know they’ve made stunning brand-supportive work on the backs of the ‘save our planet’ purpose. But faux-altruistic position for for-profit brand still gets to me.)
There’s a pretty simple test for all this. If people can read your brand purpose, and not be able to accurately predict your business model, you have not written an actual statement of purpose - you’ve written marketing fan fiction.
2020 has been pretty crazy so far. Take care of yourselves and others. And please, wash your hands.