A future without brand purpose

If we’re serious about brands doing less harm and more good in the world, then we need to drop the flawed idea of brand purpose – and retain the good intentions behind it

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Creative Review titled ‘Is this the end for brand purpose?’ Like most articles with a rhetorical title, the answer turned out to be ‘no’ – brand purpose hasn’t exactly disappeared. But it has definitely taken a kicking of late.

Every day, new examples spring up of brands talking a good purpose game and being found wanting – Gillette fighting toxic masculinity while charging more for women’s razors; the gender pay controversy at that firm whose name you can’t remember who did Fearless Girl; and ‘digital gangsters’ Facebook selling data and spreading fake news while talking proudly of building communities.

Faced with examples like these (as with Pepsi, Dove, McDonald’s and Heineken two years ago), the response of many brand purpose advocates is to double down. Rather than seeing these as evidence of the fundamental incoherency of brand purpose, they are taken as examples of purpose ‘done wrong’ – surface-level marketing, rather than organisation-level purpose. Many still insist that the best way to run a successful business and brand is to put purpose at the heart of everything and ‘start with why’.

No evidence is ever adduced for this – it’s an article of faith.