The Battle for Brand Purpose

Nick Ellis

By Nick Ellis

Time to get back to reality

Holly Tucker MBE, founder of Not On The High Street recently delivered some ‘sage’ advice for brands at her keynote at MAD/Picnic. The resulting soundbites have snaked like demonic whispering tendrils through social media, finding sycophantic agreement on LinkedIn and confused disbelief in #strategytwitter. For those that missed it, here’s a few choice quotes:

(Consumers) want to know everything about brands – engage with them, converse with them, eat with them, listen with them, visit them and know what the brand stands for. They want to get to know their circle and join a community of like-minded customers.

Customers buy experiences, not products. People want to share with their friends what they did, not what they got.

She went on to make grand statements about brands needing to establish a “mission for the greater good” and “the brands of the future – the businesses that we’ll care about and consume from – will be the ones with purpose.”

I have a problem with this. I mean, on the surface, who am I to question Holly? She has a wildly successful ecommerce business and a side hustle shudder consultancy for emerging brands. So she knows her stuff right? Well, yes, it would appear so, but when it comes to ‘brand purpose’ – as far as I’m concerned, she’s utterly deluded.

Brand purpose is not CSR

I’m not sure when brand purpose became a spiritual black hole, with meaningless platitudes orbiting the event horizon, beaconing marketeers towards its gaping maw with siren calls promising Millennial and GenZ engagement. But here we are, desperately searching for a greater meaning in an industry that needs to dial down the bullshit and start having honest conversations with itself.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Consumers do not want brands to eat with them, listen with them or visit them. They don’t want a stalker with a logo ruining their dinner, sharing it’s playlists and appearing at the front door like a middle aged Jehovah’s Witness in skinny jeans. And I’m pretty sure when people shop at Not On The High Street, they’re looking for an apron with ‘gin o’clock’ written on it rather than the ‘experience’ Holly would lead us to believe.

And that’s ok. Because brands don’t always need to be more than a vehicle for commerce. And if they try to be, commerce will nearly always get in the way.

Don’t expect Starbucks to actually ‘nurture communities one cup at a time’, they could do that by paying tax, but that would hurt their profits. Don’t expect Gillette to really care about breaking down the patriarchy, because when women pay more for their razors than men it makes the bottom line look far more silkily attractive.

I’m not saying that businesses shouldn’t be responsible for their societal and environmental impact, but that goes beyond brand. Because most people don’t really give a toss about a brand’s supposed good intentions or liberal ethics. They care about value and availability. They care about 24hr delivery. If they cared about social equality they wouldn’t shop at Amazon.

Businesses must strive to deliver great products and customer service and do so in a socially and environmentally conscious way. We, the consumer should expect that the brands we consume are doing the right thing. But when a brand uses liberal ethics and ideals as a marketing strategy, pushing a moral code in order to push product, it’s as thin and fragile as a skin graft.

Purpose used to mean something

Purpose for me, has always been about a brand’s role in people’s lives. Based on product truths, values upheld by behaviour, the shaping and interpretation of that brand by mutual agreement with the customer. Purpose is not about pursuing audience approval by aligning with a perceived morality that fits the zeitgeist. Purpose was never about changing the world. It was about changing the customer’s world.

And that was big enough. Meaningful enough. Truthful.

I want trainers that smell of park runs and 10Ks, not sweat shops and child labour. I want a flat white that comes with a double shot of espresso and paid corporation tax. I don’t need my kitchen surface cleaner to come with storytelling. I don’t need to join a community of other ‘like-minded’ people who like olives.

And I don’t need business ‘influencers’ selling the industry short, standing tall on a conference podium in front of a PowerPoint deck with low meaning but high impact based on nothing more than the speakers elevated status and financial success.

Because Brand Purpose used to be important and valuable. Stop fucking it up.

Originally published on The Drum