By: Sky Cassidy
There’s been a lot of talk about the “purpose” driven company and how your company must have a “higher purpose”. I think it’s 99% bullshit, not only that but this manipulative marketing tactic threatens the livelihood of all marketers. To the causal observer there’s a fine line between an effective marketer and a manipulation, but to us marketers that fine line needs to be an impenetrable wall.
This topic has been poking me in the ribs in one manner or another constantly for the last couple years, but this post is inspired by a recent If You Market podcast episode with Mark Schaefer (Episode 68 with Mark Schaefer – Marketing Rebellion, The Most Human Company Wins.) and a presentation by Simon Mainwaring, the CEO of brand consultancy We First at METAL on 2/22/2020.
There are always fads in marketing. Usually if you get in on the fad early you do well, then the fads start working less and less as people get desensitized. Some fads though aren’t just about whether you catch the wave or not, some fads have serious repercussions and companies getting in late don’t just miss the wave, they get crushed on the rocks. The danger of the current ‘Purpose’ fad it that it won’t just fade in effectiveness; its success is based on manipulation, the dark side of marketing. When this fad comes to an end, the companies still trying to use it will experience a customer backlash, angry people who realize they are being manipulated and pandered to. Then, the few companies that really do have an altruistic purpose will also be suspect. Thanks marketing!
Very few companies have the luxury of starting from a lofty purpose. More often businesses are started by ‘finding a need and
filling it’. The problem being solved isn’t climate change, it’s the business owner’s mortgage. In my opinion, very few companies are founded with a ‘purpose’, instead they are founded based on an opportunity. But these days nearly every company is touting their ‘purpose’ and story more than their product. Only problem is it’s made up to manipulate consumers. I don’t for a second believe that XYZ car company that’s been around for 80 years was started because they believe so much in love and hugs. It’s more likely their purpose was to build war machines for world dominance because they were making railroad cars and were given an opportunity for a government contract (totally fictional company). That watch company, razor company, <insert consumer product company here> wasn’t started because they believed so deeply in solving a planetary problem, or even that they had a bad <insert product experience> experience and just had to do something. They saw opportunity, an opportunity to make money. When was the last time you heard someone say, I’ve got a great idea, it’s going to make the world a better place, now I just have to come up with a product and a way to make a profit.
How do you know if a company really stands for their purpose? Follow the money. When you’re really into something, does it usually pay you, do you make a profit? Does it make sense for a company to spend 10 million to raise awareness for a cause and the public to donate 5 million? Only if the 10 million is really for the PR and brand building.
Causes cost money, they rarely make a profit. Billionaires have earned the luxury of being into causes because they don’t need to turn a profit any more. The rest of us spend our work hours working on our mortgages. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, just don’t let marketers convince you they started a deodorant company to end global warming, and don’t be a marketer that manipulates your audience into thinking you care about something you don’t. .
The criminal defense attorney who now lives in a trailer and represents low income victims pro bono, that lawyer found a purpose. How many brands can you name that actually have purpose other than profit? The motto of most companies is ‘immortality at any cost, then when I have all the money and power, I can do so much good’. I think Darth Vader said something like that.
You don’t have to start with purpose for it to be real. Finding purpose at any point is good. But how do you know if a company’s purpose is real? Again, follow the money. Of all the ‘purpose’ driven companies how many companies do you know that pursued their purpose to their own detriment? Generally, if profits don’t go up from the PR exposure, the purpose goes out the window. I would expect to see real companies of purpose have lower profits than their purposeless counterparts. But what if being so virtuous brings a company more customers, making them more money, surely that isn’t bad. I’d say if they really have that other, “non-money” purpose, why aren’t they reinvesting their extra profits into their so-called purpose instead of their bank account? I don’t begrudge a company caring about something and doing good while still striving to run a successful business, I’m just suspicious, beyond suspicious, I know most of them are full of shit.
With startups, it can be more difficult to tell if they really are purpose driven (newsflash, in my experience startups are typically more deceptive and worse at actually having purpose than established companies). Startups are more deceptive because they can look like they are warriors for change for good, but it isn’t (usually) for the greater good, it’s just a way to grab market share, they are usually entering a market where they need to take share from larger competition, and ‘purpose’ that tears down the competition is a great way to separate yourself from the competition. Their playbook is to be disruptive by saying “the way it’s being done is wrong and evil and we are doing it differently. Now pay 3x as much for our shampoo because we’re woke.
Ps. This is what I love about competition, it can force companies to do what’s best for the customer when companies wouldn’t otherwise. One of the best parts of capitalism is market forces incentivize companies to be better.
Solution: Charity is good, giving to a cause is good, having purpose in both your personal and professional life is important. Purpose is good, find it in your industry. If you make widgets, be good at making widgets for your customers, make solving your customers problem your purpose, and be a responsible human while doing it. If there’s a way you can do it better, then do that, if there’s a divide in your industry take the side that’s right over the side that’s profitable (they’re usually not the same side). If you make widgets and love dogs, volunteer at a dog shelter on the weekend. Please don’t listen to everyone saying you must graft your personal interests onto your business, and please stop using purpose as a driver of profit. Purpose that isn’t authentic isn’t purpose, it’s manipulation and makes you one of the bad guys.