‘Purpose is here to stay’ whether we like it or not

Exploring the trend of doing business with purpose, and how it fits into brand positioning in the current socio-cultural climate.

recently received an invitation to attend a ‘Leading with Purpose’ workshop; a series of seminars designed to “move beyond managing only for economic growth, to find new ways of being purpose-led across a wide range of environmental, social and governance priorities”.

 It seems ‘purpose’, be it organisational purpose or brand purpose, is here to stay. This is despite some vehement and influential detractors. Byron Sharp for one has been predicting that ‘purpose’ could be the death of marketing, while Mark Ritson calls for calm and common sense. But purpose just won’t go away. 

 While I don’t sit at the opposite end of the extreme with the likes of the former Proctor & Gamble CMO Jim Stengel, the evangelist who claims to have put purpose on the map and insists it is the path to profit. I do
think there must be some reason why purpose seems to dominate every brand positioning conversation.

 Byron Sharp claims marketers are afflicted by a lack of self-confidence and pride, and one of the main symptoms is the idea that brands should have a higher societal purpose. Profit in itself should be enough to get a good marketer out of bed in the morning and what’s more, get them taken more seriously
in the boardroom.

 Is this a crisis of confidence in marketing or are we feeling the sands shift beneath our feet toward a more conscientious type of consumer? I do think there is a significant shift happening all around us. Capitalism is at a crossroads and the next 10 years will reveal a change in the way business and brands go to market. Capitalism is built on three principles; 1. Tomorrow will be better than today so we can borrow against the future. 2. The wealth will trickle down from the top to benefit everyone else, and 3. Resources are infinite in their supply.

The events of 2022 are challenging those fundamentals:

The global economic downturn driven by both a pandemic and the war in Ukraine will undermine our view of a bright tomorrow.

Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter suggests the world’s richest man is investing $44 billion, (nearly a quarter of NZ’s annual GDP) in a vanity project, the benefits of which will not be trickling down anytime soon.

A stern warning from the United Nations told us the world will exceed its mid-century 1.5C warming target in the next ten years and will exceed 2.5C by the end of the century. 

Over the next 10 years it may not be consumers that drive demand for conscientious consumerism but legislators, investors and influencers instead.

Rupert Price.

So, whether we like it or not, we might be entering an era when business and brands need to be more transparent to their contribution to the social good. We are already seeing a shift in posture from shareholders, those paragons of value extraction from the market, to one more of value creation. Environmental Social Governance (ESG), now a chapter all on its own in any annual report, means investors are increasingly applying non-financial factors as part of the analysis process to identify growth opportunities moving forward.

In addition, more people of influence are also taking brands to task. Recently Pat Cummings, the Australian Cricket Captain, declared he would no longer participate in campaigns for Alinta Energy, the primary sponsor of Cricket Australia, on environmental grounds. This is hugely embarrassing for a company that has invested a reported AU$40 million in a property that was supposed to make it a household name for the right reasons.

 This followed on quickly from the Australian Diamonds netball team refusing to wear their sponsor’s name on their game uniform because of historical bigotry and racism in the company, Hancock Prospecting. Once again, it’s an influential statement that raises questions and awareness around the integrity of brands and businesses that put profit before ethics. It also cost the Chairperson of Netball Australia her job.

 So yes, in the world of marketing I believe ‘purpose’ is here to stay. As we enter a new age of conscientious consumerism, business and brands will need to be held to higher standards. So here is a shout out to all businesses and brands, now is the time to get your house in order.

 However, I do not believe purpose must become the essence of brand positioning. Sure, there are times
when it makes sense to put it front and centre but there are other times when it doesn’t.  

What is not in doubt is that ethics will become an even more vital part of the customer, employer and investor value equation, and brands and business will need to adjust. We are just in the foothills of what ‘purpose’ may evolve into but for now, knowing and having a compelling story for social good, whether you choose to promote it or not, is vital. 

This article was originally published in the Dec/Jan 2022/23 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About Rupert Price

Rupert Price is Chief Strategy Officer at DDB Group Aotearoa.

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