In this guest post, marketing activist Thomas Kolster (feature image) discusses a study in his new book that shows how purpose fails to motivate and has become a tired “save-the-world” chorus, and easily ignored…
Every ad break these days is packed tight with commercials touting a higher purpose from decrying plastic dumping in our oceans to promoting diversity. I used to believe in purpose, with all my heart. Good Lord, I even wrote a book about it calIed, “Goodvertising” (Thames & Hudson 2012). But I have had to take a hatchet to my earlier held beliefs. Something that wasn’t easy.
Consider this: If you were to kick open the door to a bar and shout, “I’m the world’s best lover!” no one would believe you. So, why would it be any different when brands shout “world saviour”? Take what, outdoor clothing and gear retailers, Patagonia are saying, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” It sounds like self-important navel gazing from a company that essentially sells t-shirts to young men stuck in pokey Brooklyn apartments, wanting to feel outdoorsy.
Patagonia, however, is a rare exception. They can get away with it, because they’re a legacy brand that can break the rules. For almost any other brand, you are setting yourself up for failure and criticism. As I say in my new book, “If you try to fly like superman, you will eventually fall like a can of soup”. Subsequently, I call this concept of self-importance and my new book, “The Hero Trap”. Daily, I witness failures and missteps, and more and more people growing critical towards brands playing heroes.
There are simply too many Mother Teresas or What was wrong with Purpose in the first place?
Purpose can be a very beautiful thing. Having a purpose is supposed to be grounded in having good intent. “So”, you may ask, “why is purpose bad?” Well, brand purpose emerged as a countermovement to a rising mistrust and even hatred towards brands. The thinking was that if brands started caring and acting on issues people cared about, maybe the fragile relationship could be strengthened.
A decade ago, brands like Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Chipotle and Patagonia made hearts beat faster by simply showing care. But as every brand today is pitching itself as Mother Teresa or Gandhi – who can be believed? Every brand can claim to have a big role to play in your life as their burning “Why”. But if you can’t see or feel the outcome, it’s another broken promise.
Let me ask you this. What brand has changed your life for the better? Taught you something new? Made you healthier? Sparked new thinking? Probably not many. My list was very short, which proves there is plenty of space for brands to play a meaningful role in our lives rather than simply shouting their world-bettering ambitions at us like a Pope on speed.
Less about buying, more about becoming
I’ll argue we’re heading towards a post-purpose marketplace, where people are no longer buying what you make – or why you make it, but instead who you can help them become. It’s all about the difference you can enable in someone’s life. From a positioning point of view, it’s a move from a brand playing a societal difference e.g. a more climate friendly car like a Prius (which my first book Goodvertising described) to a transformational difference e.g. a more conscious traveller.
It’s also a warning to brands who ignore how younger generations are increasingly flirting with a post-consumerist mindset. During the pandemic, we’ve witnessed how people embrace a reality where it’s less about buying and more about realising dreams, goals and ambitions. It’s about guitar lessons, yoga, community work, baking and even knitting. This is a wake-up call for everyone from brands embracing purpose to Non-Profits. People don’t want to hear about your brand’s world-bettering accomplishments or simply buy a halo. Wearing a cap decrying plastic flooding our oceans is the easiest thing in the world. It demands almost no effort. Being generous cannot be bought; it’s something you earn through time and effort.
Patagonia can claim to be “in business to save our home planet,” but compare that to a statement from a Danish organic food box delivery service, Aarstiderne. Their mission is spreading “the joy of organic produce and great tasting meals.” As a customer, I’m improving my cooking and learning how to make great tasting organic vegetarian meals. I’m thankful for the new-found cooking skills, which I can enjoy and share with friends. I don’t actually buy their organic produce. I buy who Aarstiderne helps me become: A better plant-based cook.
The added benefit is that I also want to share my newly discovered skills with my friends and my vegan pie becomes a symbol of accomplishment and status. It’s a world apart from Patagonia’s claim but the resonance on intimate moments of my life is quite profound. Albeit for a similar cause. For this, their brand gets a thankful following.
Change begins with asking: WHO can you help people become?
We don’t need more brands preaching. What we need are coaches who can help us achieve our goals or overcome obstacles. It’s a move from “why” your brand matters to understanding how you can help me achieve “who” I want to be. Very few brands have been able to bridge the purpose gap and get people to move from buying into the purpose to actually buying the product. The intention is there, but action doesn’t follow.
After years of advising leaders and brands on purpose, I finally realised what the missing link was: The very people you are supposed to serve and consequently motivate. I looked to coaching methodologies and psychotherapy to understand how to move people from inaction to action, from unfulfilled to fulfilled. One simple but essential question helped spark the needed change, “Who can you help me become?” It’s moving the relationship from transactional to transformational, helping people be more, do more, see more, experience more!
Your brand’s dreams versus my dreams
I did one commissioned study comparing well-known purposeful commercials like Budweiser’s “Wind Never Felt Better” with transformational commercials like Always’ famous “Like A Girl” commercial. The findings were clear: People are 29.5% more motivated to act on transformational messaging. It’s dangerous to climb the purpose pedestal and put on the hero’s mantle. And it’s even more treacherous to put on a balaclava and behave like an activist.
I realised years ago how difficult it is to create change. We are our own biggest barriers to the change we want to see in our lives – and this is where brands have a truly meaningful role to play. Every brand can claim to be diverse, but the outcome I can feel and appreciate, is a brand that has helped me overcome some of my own biases.
Dear brands, don’t put on that red superhero cape, instead turn people into the activists of their own lives. WHO focuses on the role you can play in people’s lives; enabling their beliefs and dreams, whereas WHY focuses on your organisation’s beliefs and dreams.
Anyone can sell people things, stories or identity, but very few brands can help people achieve their goals. There is no higher accomplishment for a brand or a leader and people will most certainly sing your praise.
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