[Editor’s note: We’ve written about how influential brands can be if they align with customers, and specifically when they align themselves with authentic values. So, we thought we’d share Atomic London’s message about brand purpose and keeping it real. Enjoy the read.]
One thing that became clear as 2019 became 2020 was that the era of the ‘fake’ or contrived brand purpose had ended.
By: Jon Goulding
Throughout the 2010s, brands became increasingly convinced that they needed to have a reason to exist beyond adding value to their customers. The idea was that the consumer wanted brands to be ‘ethical’ and authentic, and prospective employees wanted to work at companies that were playing their part to make the world better. In 2018, both Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review ran articles claiming that the secret to success in the 21st century was purpose. Books were written on the subject.
But they were wrong. What some brands failed to realise was how jarring it was to hear about a brand’s noble reason for existing while also knowing that in other areas—usually where tax was involved—‘noble’ was not the word that came to mind. And then came woke washing, and the catastrophic Pepsi commercial in which Kendall Jenner single-handedly defuses the tension between police officers and an angry crowd by giving one of the officers a Pepsi. As if to add a full stop—or exclamation mark—to the end of the ‘brand purpose’ chapter in the story of modern business, Gillette made a dramatic pivot, first challenging men to be better in the wake of #MeToo and then airing an ad in which a transgender man learns to shave. The response was mixed; and at best, after years of celebrating more traditional depictions of rugged masculinity with the ‘Best a Man Can Get’ campaign, this new approach was seen by some as deeply cynical.
During the pursuit of brand purpose, authenticity was left in the dust
Instances like these undermined the whole notion of purpose. As obvious as it is to say, purpose has to be something you actually do believe. It isn’t like a Chrome extension, to be added on your business later in the game in pursuit of greater profits. But you could also argue that purpose—purpose according to the meaning that it took on—was never going to become more than a trend. The reality is that many if not most businesses are launched for the far more pragmatic reasons i.e., there are people who are not being served in some way by what’s currently available on the market, and that there’s therefore an opportunity for a new product or service to emerge. Its makers can accommodate those people and be paid for their trouble. What’s wrong with that?
Serving your customers by focusing on what you do best and striving always to be better is a worthy purpose. It also happens to be what most ambitious businesses do naturally. If the brand purpose saga has taught us anything, it’s that businesses should interrogate their purposes and make sure they haven’t got sloppy. What value are you really adding for your customers? Are you being authentic to yourselves? Are you communicating honestly with your audiences? And this points out something else. Brands don’t need to be saints and martyrs. They just need to do what they do best in an honest and environmentally and socially ‘responsible’ way. What is unacceptable is hypocrisy and cynicism.
Also read: Can Influencer Marketing Advance Loyalty?
This isn’t really to say that all the brands that pushed their purpose were doing it for the narrowest commercial reasons. There were many that had the best intentions at heart, and some great purpose-driven work emerged as a result. But what I’m sure we’ll now see is far more effort made within brands to define and communicate their usefulness to their customers. And a wider acceptance that, actually, when you think about it, serving the people around you through imaginative, intelligent work is an admirable thing by itself as long as you go about it in a decent way. There’s nothing new about that idea. So here’s a mantra for the next decade: Work hard. Be authentic. And don’t be boring.