At 22.07 on Wednesday night, I was about to head to bed when I received a text from my co-founder with the above screenshot.
In a public letter to customers, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard shared he was giving his company away to two entities who will support environmental causes.
Voting shares will go to the Patagonia Purpose Trust (who exist to create a more permanent legal structure to enshrine Patagonia’s purpose and values), and non-voting shares to the Holdfast Collective, which is dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature. The deal will amount to about $100m per year towards the causes these entities support.
Reading the news, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that there are leaders like Yvon and companies like Patagonia in the world. The extreme climate we’ve seen, from 40 degree days in the UK to flooding in Pakistan, show we are having a material impact on this world and something more significant needs to be done.
Yvon said in the statemen, “instead of ‘going public’, you could say we’re ‘going purpose'”.
As someone who sits as part of more conversations about marketing than I care to admit in my role at The Marketing Meetup, I often hear the concept of brand purpose discussed in a negative way. “Marketers are just here to sell more stuff, we need to get comfortable with that” was a LinkedIn post I came across the other day that felt representative of one side of the argument.
The actions of Patagonia and Yvon give me hope, though. Patagonia has grown into an incredibly successful business off the back of building something that benefits more than just the company. Yes to profits, but yes to impact on people and the planet, too.
So where did we go wrong (and Patagonia go right) with purpose?
In truth, I don’t know ‘when’ brand purpose went wrong, I just know how it feels when you can see it happening. Brand purpose communications without substance feels flat, thin and without meaning. It’s the stuff that you probably have to ask the team to ‘like’ so it looks like it’s getting some engagement.
If you want to reap the benefits of brand purpose, your brand has to be purposeful.
Too often we’ll see this manifested as a logo change colour on social media, or a CEO asking ‘should we do a post about pride month?’, which is swiftly followed by a company then being exposed for not having the policies or culture to match. And who can forget the Gender Pay Gap Bot?
Instead of voluntary and based on substance – it became an issue of who could be the first in the communications race. The first to react to a situation or insert oneself into the conversation, with little consideration for brand consistency or having our own houses in order.
Patagonia’s latest move acts as an example of the opposite through its consistency and substance. It cares about the planet. Its Twitter bio now reads ‘Our number one shareholder is the planet’. Rarely will you see statements about anything except its clothing, the lifestyle its brand promotes, and the work it supports on the planet. It has built its company around it – even going so far as to change its articles of association to become a B Corp way before the announcement of this week.
As a result, when customers see marketing communications from Patagonia, they know it to be authentic. There is a cult following for the brand but also a great sentiment that surrounds the company – it was ranked number one in the Axios Reputation Rankings for this reason. The success of Patagonia isn’t just because of its purpose, but it has been raised well beyond the levels of a commodity through communication of its purpose and brand building activities.
That’s the trick that isn’t really a trick at all: if you want to reap the benefits of brand purpose, your brand has to be purposeful.
So what can marketers do?
Well, knowing how a company is truly positioned will help this conversation – something not always abundantly obvious from the outside. Brand managers can ask themselves: what are the things our brand wishes to be known for? What really matters to us, and the customers we attract?
These are basic questions but the answers dictate both what your brand stands for, but also what it does not. For the record, this isn’t just a marketing exercise – it has to speak to the core of the company, with marketers an important part of the conversation as the ‘voice of the customer’.
That does not mean brands are ‘against’ the issues they do not stand for, it just means the other issues have very little to do with them. Brand marketers can take the time to be quiet and learn rather than feel like they have to contribute to the discussion. Strategy is about being ‘choiceful’, don’t forget.
As part of this pondering, there is also a question to be asked: Does your brand need a purpose? The answer isn’t always yes. While your brand may have a consistent promise of a product or service, we’re not all here to change the world. Sometimes a widget is just a widget. Jack Hinchliffe, CMO of KFC held a meandering conversation on this in the below video where he, in part, came to this same conclusion.
Over my 10 years in marketing, it feels like there has been an acceleration in the issues and debates we ‘could’ chime in from a marketing comms perspective. That also means it’s going to become increasingly important to know what your brand stands for. Great brands turn up in the same shape, regularly, recognisably and, sometimes, with purpose (if that’s what your brand has chosen to do).
Does purpose have a place?
Purpose is not enough by itself. Patagonia’s initial success was as much down to a superior product as it was its purpose: it’s fanciful to claim otherwise.
But purpose, and brand purpose communications can have a place – if the business truly means it. Patagonia has shown it is possible to grow a successful business while also maintaining purposeful intent.
The challenge is for companies to ask the questions – do we stand for anything? Do we want to? If so, how far are we willing to go to really live the purpose we exist for? Patagonia has just thrown down a very big gauntlet.