Brand purpose is mostly fiction

Most companies tend to wax lyrical about the virtues of their brand but are seldom ever able to put their money where their mouth is.

One can say some companies maybe trying but it may also be case of too little too late. For example Gillette’s new ad suggests that a decent chap should call out toxic masculinity when he sees it, a refreshing departure from the last three decades of phallic symbolism and machismo.

From a strategic point of view, the ad made total sense. There’s just one thing. Purpose is something you believe, not something you make up one day as a marketing strategy.

Its social media mentions flooded with women complaining that Gillette’s razors for women are pink and cost more. For a company that makes shaving kits, Gillette didn’t seem to have looked in the mirror.

The problem with most of these companies is just that. Most of the time what they say in only rhetoric.

State Street for examples underpays female employees.

Starbucks did not pay corporate tax in the UK for three years on sales of
£1.2 billion thereby failing to nurture local neighbourhoods by paying for police, social services or even street sweepers.

Johnson and Johnson kept 98% of its cash offshore in 2017, some USD$42 billion of it.

If you don’t pay the taxes that cover your customers’ healthcare and education, you don’t really care about the well-being of the people you serve.

Brand purpose is at risk of losing any meaning; it’s already being hilariously mocked.

We need genuinely moral companies to exert their power and tackle the big problems of the day. Besides, high-mindedness can make a company a ton of money. It has done so, over and over again, for centuries.

An example of this is prevalent in history, when Queen Victoria was still young, two brothers took over their father’s cocoa business and started making chocolate bars.

Their surname was Cadbury so–spoiler alert–this is a success story. They outgrew their factory in the U.K.’s industrial heartland of Birmingham, so they began planning to build a bigger one. They bought land, lots of land; far too much land for a chocolate plant.

They had a vision for a factory in a garden, and a town that would grow in that garden. George Cadbury decreed that, “one-tenth of the Estate should be laid out and used as parks, recreation grounds, and open space.” Those spaces weren’t just for Cadbury’s employees. They were for everybody.

George and Richard Cadbury were Quakers. They believed that wealth was meaningless unless you used it to raise the living standards of others. It’s a concept called the Commonwealth, something the Quakers later exported to America.

Quakers have proved remarkably successful in business, founding Barclays and Lloyds, two of the U.K.’s biggest banks, Clarks (of desert boot fame), Nike, and even Sony.

All these companies had founders who believed in a commonwealth, who wanted to create a tide that floated many boats, not just their own.

Centuries before anybody said the words “brand purpose,” these companies had it–and flourished because of it. Quakers were honest. Quakers were straight dealers. Quakers paid their debts. There’s a great documentary about them here–but don’t watch it yet, I’m just getting to the good bit.

Right now, purpose is often left in the hands of ad agencies. Every second brief begins, “In a world where everybody is increasingly polarized, at least they can come together over [insert client’s product here].”

It would be better to set the senior management an exam question: What is this company’s commonwealth, and how do we help it to prosper? Patagonia treats the environment as a commonwealth: There’s no point in making great outdoors clothes if the outdoors has become a climate-baked hellscape. It donated its $10 million tax break to environmental charities. If you can easily identify your commonwealth, then you probably had a purpose all along.

Cadbury was sold to the food-processing giant Mondelez in 2001. In 2017, Mondelez U.K. managed to pay £122,000 ($157,000) of tax on sales of £1.65 billion ($2.12 billion). Its purpose states that it will be, “Right for our communities as well as the planet.” Yeah, right.


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