Breaking Bad Purpose. Just good intentions make for bad brand purpose

Purpose that doesn’t come at the cost of profit, is just purpose washing. If the purpose of business is to make a profit, that is fine, not if it’s masqueraded as anything else. There is enough purpose is creating something of value, something clients want to buy and what people want to help create. Jobs, a safe and respectful place of work, a motivating environment and giving people a sense of challenge and achievement is sufficient purpose. Businesses, owners and brand managers needn’t feel the pressure of having noble intentions and should feel secure in just making damn good and differentiated products, services or solutions.

As an entrepreneur, if my ambition is to create a business of a certain type, because it fulfils me and my aspirations, that’s enough purpose. Even if my business is just making awesome stationery, or doughnuts, or dosa. I shouldn’t feel the need to equate it with a larger narrative, world changing intent or saving the planet.

There’s an entire industry that’s spawned from this sudden sense of ‘woke-ness’ in business. Terms like purpose-marketing, purpose-driven businesses and purpose awards have emerged, hollowing out conversations on what purpose is. We’ve even diversified purpose into corporate purpose, social purpose and equate it with things like corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthropy. Here’s my view of what isn’t brand purpose.

Check 1. Purpose is not CSR, philanthropy or good intent.

We’re living in an age of social media where everyone with a phone i.e. (almost) everyone, has not only a view on what brands say and do and the gap between them, but also has the opportunity to share it, publicly. These messages rocket through the internet, powered by trusted peer networks and can destroy reputation in minutes. It is in this environment that brands masquerading corporate social responsibility as purpose are easily differentiated from those businesses that are created from a deep sense of responsibility towards society. And the public will see through this. One such example is Mastercard’s ‘Start Something Priceless’ campaign where the brand announced- for each goal scored by Messi or Neymar Jr, 10,000 children would receive a meal. The public demanded they donate the meals, regardless of the score.

Brand Purpose is not philanthropy and is far from charity. It’s about answering the questions – why do you exist beyond making money and why should anyone care?

Check 2. Purpose is not a marketing campaign aimed at driving sales.

I have a problem with brands wanting to show themselves as real do-gooders, by playing into public sentiment and tapping into emotive issues, only to be found wanting in practising those ideal behaviours at home first. A popular example is McDonald’s flipping their iconic golden arches from an “M” to a “W” to honor International Women’s Day only to be called out for its gender pay-divide, paying low wages and administering zero-hours contracts to its employees

As another example, the razor blade brand, Gillette has done some thought-provoking campaigns around women empowerment and breaking stereotypes, however, the company saw no issue in charging women 25% more than what men must pay, for a similar five-bladed razor. This too, was called out, exposing the gap between what a brand says and what it does.

Check 3. Purpose, without context is a real disaster.

A classic case of a purpose-driven campaign gone wrong is the ‘Bounce Back’ campaign by Kurl-On Mattress. On the face of it, it is a perfect theme for a spring mattress. But wait for it…in a print ad series, subjects are shown falling in their adversity, to bounce right back from a Kurl-On Mattress to their global successes. The series featured Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi ‘bouncing back’. One in the series of three print ads features a cartoon of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban but ‘bounced back’ to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This ad must be the ultimate trivialization of a dreadful event and the brand faced a real outpouring of criticism.

In India, another example is the much-talked-about Tanishq ‘Ekatvam’ campaign showing a Hindu daughter-in-law, staying peacefully in a Muslim family. In this case, the campaign is not a problem, the brand succumbing to threats based on religious divides and withdrawing not one but two ads consecutively, is.

True Brand Purpose must come at the risk of profit.

It’s about taking a stand, even at the cost of profit. It’s about making choices of the kind of business we want to create and what meaning it fulfils for us. It’s about being content with it, without feeling the need to post every single action on our social handles. True authenticity comes from actions and behaviours, not posturing towards building a better world to drive up a valuation or share price.

Girish Balachandran, Founder & Managing Partner of ON PURPOSE