Airbnb’s Alex Dimiziani: Why are brands getting purpose so f*cking wrong?

All too often purpose is simply a veneer. To get it right brands have got to truly embed it into their business and the organisational culture.

Purpose. It’s everywhere. As a marketer who has long-sung the praises of purposeful brands, I am at once heartened and frightened by the pervasive use of the word in marketing today.

It’s on the lips of executives and board members alike as companies increasingly recognise the power of purpose and its potential impact on growth. Companies doing it well are now outperforming competitors by 206%.

Purpose can drive differentiation and relevance in the most commoditised of categories, recruitment and retention beyond reason, and a disproportionate share of voice, even in cluttered media environments. It can sustain price premiums and power expansion into new categories.

It can drive organisational cohesion, ensuring all stakeholders and resources are deployed toward a single ‘north star’, and galvanise a workforce. It can help companies proactively manage their PR narrative, improve public sentiment, and influence policy.

And it’s on the minds and driving the employment choices of many, most notably, millennials. So, if purpose is so important, why are so many brands getting it so fucking wrong?

Pepsi’s misjudged ad featuring Kendall Jenner and Etsy’s employee petition against its new mission and values are just two examples.

We’re seeing headline after headline about companies failing and being roundly derided. Employees are crying hypocrisy on review sites like Glassdoor. In fact, according to purpose specialists Kin&Co’s recent ‘F**king up purpose’ report, over a third of employees would now turn to online review sites if they weren’t happy with their company culture.

‘Purpose’ is becoming a laughing stock, seen simply as more meaningless, marketing jargon.

And customers feel the same. Purpose-bashing is rife on social media, and the new stats show many wouldn’t buy from a company that was hypocritical or didn’t treat its employees well.

As a result, ‘purpose’ is becoming a laughing stock, seen simply as more meaningless, marketing jargon. Even popular satirical BBC sitcom ‘W1A’ has started mocking it.

It is precisely because brand purpose is largely being leveraged for a marketing purpose, with no more a real and positive societal impact than a new flavour or shiny new packaging.

In today’s highly cynical and transparent environment, this approach can do more – and more long-lasting – damage than good.

For purpose to resonate as real, persist over time and yield rewards, it must be ‘inside-out’. It must be found in consultation with employees so it is really true to the business, to the organisational culture, to the benefits delivered by the products or services.

It must be the single most important criteria via which a company evaluates – and that with which it imbues – all actions. From the consumers and communities it serves, to new product launches, to its partner strategy, to its organisational structure, to its charitable causes, to its employee recruitment and retention practices and to its communications campaigns. Not a veneer applied to the status quo.

No one fucks up purpose on purpose. But too few are purposefully identifying, embedding and enacting it consistently.

Alex Dimiziani is outgoing global marketing director at Airbnb

Hide Comments3 Show Comments
  • Kevin Keohane 31 Jan 2018 at 8:04 pm

    Great article. As yet another creative strategist who has delivered on and evangelised/ises about Purpose, it’s been disheartening to see it so abused. It really comes down to DO, don’t SAY. Or at least DO first, SAY later. Rather than the reverse.

  • Rob Gray 2 Feb 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Great article Alex. I find that purpose is often equated with having a social cause. It can be this, but it can equally be connecting with the organisations reason-for-being beyond profit. We’ve just produced a report on the superior returns to be had from building brands from the inside-out. Taking a purpose, why, vision (or whatever term you prefer) beyond marketing spin and embedding it in the organisation is fundamental to this approach. It’s here if you’re interested –

  • Mark Batchelor 5 Feb 2018 at 11:13 am

    I’ve found even some of the more progressive organisations don’t always appreciate what’s required to fulfill their promise within their stated purpose, and how to translate it across all aspects and culture. Being realistic and aligning it with universally recognised standards and goals is a good start, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals when it comes to sustainability.

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