A deep dive into the complexity of brand purpose

Nick Asbury’s new book examines how brand purpose intoxicated the marketing world, and the negative impact he feels it has wrought. Here he introduces the book’s central themes and implores us all to think differently about the trend

Nick Asbury’s The Road to Hell, featuring cover design by David Pearson

Do you remember the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad? Released on April 4, 2017, the ad showed her joining a protest in which young people held up placards saying ‘Love’ and ‘Join the conversation’. Breaking off from a glamorous photo shoot, Kendall Jenner joins the marchers and hands an ice-cold can of Pepsi to a stern-faced cop, who breaks into a smile as the crowd cheers.

It’s possible you missed the ad as it was pulled the next day, after a global outcry over its adoption of a BLM aesthetic to sell a soft drink.

It’s partly what prompted me to write my first article about purpose. Other examples included McDonald’s telling the story of a boy bonding with his dead father over a shared love of filet o’ fish, Heineken getting culture war opponents together over a product shot, Dove introducing a range of curly-haired emojis and packaging that mimicked different body shapes, and Cannes Lions celebrating the I Sea app that claimed to help rescue refugees lost at sea, but turned out to be a paper-thin ‘proof of concept’.

Back then, it felt like we must have reached a tipping point, where brands would finally abandon the purpose doctrine that had taken hold after the 2008 crash, and was pushing them to strain ever harder to create a connection between their product and a higher social cause. But the response from business and adland was to double down.