‘Good intentions lead to bad marketing’: Why purpose is missing the mark

For all its good intentions, purpose is producing bad marketing and worse social outcomes. Time for a change.

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“Even public companies with good intentions are under too much pressure to create short-term gain at the expense of long-term vitality and responsibility.”

I’ve been making the case against purpose for seven years, and working as a writer on the front line of branding and strategy for much longer. But that opening quote doesn’t come from me, or any of the purpose critics often cast as naysayers and cynics.

It comes from Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, writing in his open letter of 2022 about what a disaster it would have been to take his company public.

Setting aside the wider story of Patagonia (which is more complex than the PR suggests, which I wrote about in a Substack post here) what about the substance of the quote?

‘The penny has dropped’: Is purpose having a crisis of confidence?If Chouinard is right, where does it leave Unilever? Or any of the 181 CEOs who signed the ‘Statement on the purpose of the corporation’ with great fanfare in 2019? A document that claimed to put social purpose at the top of the corporate agenda.

All have proclaimed their good intentions, often through high-profile marketing campaigns. But there’s a proverb about good intentions paving the road to somewhere, and it isn’t anywhere good.

In my new book ‘The Road to Hell’, I take a serious look at an idea that has loomed large for many in the marketing world in recent years, and remains deeply institutionalised to this day. It’s the idea of purpose, with its signature slogans ‘do well by doing good’ and ‘start with why’, and its favoured language of ‘stepping up’, and being ‘on the right side of history’.

Many have criticised the results, and it’s certainly easy to mock the obvious targets, such as the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. But I’ve always aimed to go beyond that and take purpose seriously on its own terms – or purpose ‘done right’ as its proponents say.

Oatly’s creative chief: You can’t strategise on purposeIn the book, I trace the story of this idea from the roots of business, through more recent debates about shareholder vs stakeholder capitalism, up to the crash of 2008, when global business entered a severe reputational crisis and saw purpose as the way out of it.

To some thinkers at the time, it was clear that the idea had fundamental flaws. If purpose is what an organisation is ‘for’, then it should be relevant that society designates some organisations as ‘for-profit’ and others as ‘not-for-profit’.

A lot rides on that distinction – we tax those organisations differently, and have different expectations of them. We expect not-for-profits to tackle social issues, because that’s their reason for being. Traditionally, we haven’t expected for-profits to do the same, because they have no social licence to do so.

What they describe as ‘stepping up’ is more often an attempt to step out of their realm and influence questions better settled by society and democracy.

Good intent, bad marketing

The good intentions also lead to bad marketing. In the book, I trace how starting with why (a theory based on a ‘triune’ brain theory that was already discredited at the time) leads companies towards generic abstractions and weak claims.

The practice of marketing becomes about straining to link your product to a wider social good. Some do it more slickly than others, but the fundamental game is the same, and it’s one that treats consumers as fools.

Even Dove, hailed as a towering success in the marketing world, is viewed differently by many on the outside. Yes, it’s been commercially successful, but some executions have been greeted by eye-rolling articles (by Arwa Mahdawi, Virginia Postrel, Shagun Gupta among others) accusing Dove of co-opting the language of empowerment to tell stories that reinforce the insecurities they claim to fight.

If the purpose of purpose is purpose (as Mark Ritson has written in the past), then the success of any purpose campaign has to be measured on its social outcomes. That’s tricky with Dove because its ‘The Real Truth About Beauty’ report in 2004 was a shaky foundation.

It may strike some as absurd to suggest a link between a soap brand’s advertising and the rising mental health crisis. But if so, it should strike us as equally absurd that Dove has any effect in the other direction.

Despite carrying the endorsement of three scientists, it was primarily a market research exercise carried out by StrategyOne, and the headline finding that only 2% of women considered themselves ‘beautiful’ was misleading when you consider that 72% responded that they considered themselves of average beauty, only 13% considered themselves below average, and most didn’t regard ‘beauty’ as important compared to family, friends, faith, career success and other factors.

That didn’t stop Dove launching into two decades of ads magnifying the issue and casting itself as a solution, with results that may be working better for Dove than for society. Dr Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has tracked the rise in mental health problems in young women, and explicitly cited the over-emphasis on ‘self-esteem’ as part of the problem.

It may strike some readers as absurd to suggest a causal link between a soap brand’s advertising and the rising mental health crisis. But if so, it should strike us as equally absurd that Dove has any effect in the other direction.

That is the advantage of social issues for brands. Unlike economic issues such as low pay or supply chain exploitation, they are not things that can be definitively solved, so your brand can remain in permanent crusade mode.

The Gen Z contradiction

But aren’t consumers demanding this? Especially Gen Z consumers?

That’s the story Gen Z consultancies would like anxious middle-aged marketers to believe. But the reality refuses to fit. According to two recent polls in America for NBC and The New York Times, Gen Z plans to vote 46% Trump and 42% Biden in the next election.

Even if you flip those numbers around, it’s hardly evidence of a generation united in its desire for corporations pushing a progressive agenda.

Even if they were united, the rise of two of Gen Z’s favourite brands, according to data from Morning Consult, in fast-fashion brand Shein and social media app TikTok, which was last year fined by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office for misuse of data, suggests consumer habits rarely track what people say in surveys about making ethical choices.

The rise of trends like ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘lazy girl jobs’ is a further sign that Gen Z is detaching itself from the corporate purpose narrative, and looking for purpose beyond the realm of corporations and consumerism, where it usually belongs.

The old purpose vanguard needs new ideasSome readers will understandably be thinking the evidence says otherwise: aren’t there countless studies proving that purpose works? Again, the reality is different, and unfortunately it takes more work to debunk the inflated claims than it takes to produce and popularise them.

One of the founding texts of the purpose movement was Jim Stengel’s ‘Grow’, in which he presented the Stengel 50 of companies who (he argued) had embraced purpose and thrived as a result. You may remember Marketing Week columnist Richard Shotton doing the work to unpack the shoddy data behind this back in 2015. But it didn’t stop the work being endorsed by Martin Sorrell and large swathes of a credulous marketing world.

Years later, the work of Peter Field and the IPA, sponsored by purposeful Danone, carried more credibility, but the top-line finding that purposeful campaigns were far less effective than non-purposeful campaigns was buried.

I don’t write this purely in order to tear down. The idea of businesses and marketers contributing positively to society is a good one. But it needs to be rescued from the complacent and contradictory thinking of the purpose movement.

Marketers can do social good by producing effective marketing that helps the businesses that sustain entire families and communities. They can do even more good by working for genuinely purposeful non-profit causes, rather than putting them in the small print while a chocolate bar, craft beer or fabric conditioner gets the headlines and the ‘purpose’ awards.

The idea of businesses and marketers contributing positively to society is a good one. But it needs to be rescued from the complacent and contradictory thinking of the purpose movement.

Most of all, marketers can honour the social contract on which advertising depends. Every day, we interrupt people with giant billboards on the street, or unskippable ads inserted into the latest Prime Video or Netflix release. We’re an uninvited guest, and that comes with a duty to be respectful to the people we address. We should be more interested in them, with all their diverse values and purposes, than we are in ourselves.

Instead, too many brands shout preachy messages that centre themselves as the hero and implore people to ‘join the conversation’ on a social issue they discovered five minutes ago. All while warping those same conversations through the ad-funded social media model that incentivises polarisation and tribalism to generate clicks.

Some will already be tired of the purpose debate and I understand that instinct. But the deeper debate about the ethics and effectiveness of marketing should never get tired – and it goes back a long way.

In 1971, an adman by the name of Bill Bernbach said: “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” I think it’s a better slogan to pin over your desk than ‘Do well by doing good’. And it might just lead somewhere better.

Nick Asbury is a creative writer for branding and design, commentator at nickasbury.substack.com and author of The Road to Hell.