16th April 2024

The Art of Purpose: When Less is More in Marketing

Andrew Simmonds
Head of EMEA Content
Explore the balance between authentic purpose and cringe-worthy shilling in marketing. Learn when it's best to take a step back and focus on what truly matters.

It appears we live in a ‘purpose-driven’ world. Had you noticed?

If you hadn’t, chuck the words ‘purpose-driven’ into Google and you’ll find a raft of articles on topics like “How to be a purpose-driven leader in a capitalist world”, “How to become a purpose-driven leader” and “Turning purpose into impact”.

Don’t get me wrong, purpose is important. A set of core values that define what your business stands for can keep you on the same page internally, and help you communicate clearly externally — because we all want to feel like we’re making a difference, right? 

But there are times I wonder if we’re forcing the issue. Does every product need to have a grand societal purpose? Do you really want to think about your favourite condiment’s stance on global conflict as you saunter down the mayonnaise aisle?(Heinz certainly wanted you to.)

Fundamentally, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here. As businesses feel the pressure to tie every minor product and services into a social cause, we start to lose track of what is actually a meaningful product or outcome… and trivialise the wider concept of purpose itself. Everything ends up the same shade of dull ‘purpose’ dishwater, and no one is actually making any improvements.

The perception around purpose is already undergoing change in the business world. The stark realisation by the new CEO of Unilever, a titan in consumer goods, that certain products don’t neatly fit into the narrative of ‘purpose’ serves as a wake-up call. More broadly, I think we can safely assume a lot of consumers know when they’re looking at bullshit. They know when it makes sense to link arms with a cause, and when it doesn’t. 

So, where do we find the balance between rightful purpose and cringe-worthy shilling?

Part of this is really just common sense. We need to be discerning about what’s impactful and what’s just transactional, and we need to include a variety of voices and perspectives in the room to figure that out. Diverse groups avoid more blindspots, find contradictions more easily, and quite simply just detect bullshit better.

A marketing agency is a great asset here, of course. But it’s not just about professional advice. Sometimes you need to just take your head out of the job and think like a regular human being. Do you want the purpose-driven mayonnaise? And do you really think your ethical fabric softener makes a difference if your company is simultaneously open-pit mining for diamonds?

Take a step back and think about what you — or the average person on the street — really cares about. That’s not to trash talk purpose — quite the opposite. The more authentically we can communicate about things that actually make a difference, the more people will actually listen. That allows us to actually achieve something, rather than just drown out meaningful conversations.

At the end of the day, sometimes, like in the case of mayonnaise, it’s just… not that deep.

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