August 06, 2021|
7 min read
Does Your Brand’s Purpose Have to Be about “Justice”?
There is a lot of buzz about purpose right now. Many brands have discovered that having a purpose is a solid way of developing a brand.
Of course, that’s also sparked the inevitable backlash against purpose-driven brands. Many people see this as another marketing fad. It will go, they say. Everyone is hopping on the bandwagon now. But people will get sick of every brand promising this or that and never delivering.
Others think we’re getting distracted from our “real purpose,” which is making money. (I maintain that’s a goal, not a purpose.) They see all this discussion about “purpose” as being nothing more than distraction.
More recently, I saw somebody question “social justice” focuses. And a lot of brands are focused on this kind of stuff right now. We have brands that support BLM, brands that are focused on feminism or body positivity. Some are climate warriors, while others are advocating for the LGBTQ+ community.
As this Marketer said, all this focus on “doing good” and “making the world a better place” is … kind of exhausting. Why, they wondered, can’t a brand’s purpose be having a great product?
Here’s the thing: it absolutely can be about that.
All Brands Have a Purpose
The backlash against “brand purpose" comes from people misunderstanding what it actually is. Yum! Brands’ CMOand this opinion writer have confused purpose with conscious capitalism.
Conscious (or conscientious) capitalism is new. It’s trendy. And it’s what drives all these “justice” focused brands. Conscious capitalism asks us to question where our money is going. Are we buying from a brand that exploits poor cocoa farmers and uses child labour? Or are we buying from a brand that supports fair trade, profit-shares with its workers?
We could support beauty brands that focus on body positivity instead of brands that drive fear.
This is what people are complaining about when they say “brand purpose” is exhausting or that it’s a distraction from our “real” goals. They’re asking if every brand needs to be involved in these movements. Does your brand have to have some “higher purpose” about making the world a better, fairer place?
The answer to that question is no. But all brands still have a purpose—something that drives them beyond “make money.” It’s their reason for being, for doing what they do! After all, if your goal is to make money, then retail’s not a good investment. Most new businesses fail. Why are you dumping money into what’s likely a bust?
The answer is passion or purpose. And that’s what we’re actually talking about when we look at brand purpose—why is this brand here?
Purpose and Conscious Capitalism Don’t Always Align
Brand purpose overlaps with conscious capitalism sometimes, which is why people get confused. There are many brands today that are focused on conscious capitalism. That is their purpose. We can look at eco-friendly clothing brands like Tentree or Christie Dawn. These brands exist to push back against the “fast fashion” that’s damaging the environment. That is their purpose.
For other brands, conscious capitalism isn’t on the radar. Take a look at Apple. The brand contributes to huge ecological problems. Electronic waste is an enormous issue, especially as first world countries send old devices to be “recycled” in third world countries. Often, we see impoverished people picking through e-waste without proper equipment. Old electronics can leach heavy metals into the soil. Meanwhile, Apple uses “planned obsolescence” to keep people ditching their old phones, creating more e-waste.
Apple also contributes to issues around mining. They use precious metals like lithium, silicon, and cobalt. These materials are mined in poorer countries, in dangerous and ecologically damaging conditions. What is Apple doing about that?
Even if Apple reduces its ecological footprint, we can see it’s not a brand that’s focused on climate justice. Green isn’t their thing.
That doesn’t mean the brand doesn’t have a purpose. Apple does have a purpose: it’s innovation. Apple is here to innovative new technology products to make everything we do easier. They introduced the graphical user interface, which made computers easy to use. The iPod made it possible to carry our music everywhere with us. And the iPhone helps us stay in touch with each other, keeping us connected even when we’re on the go.
Could Apple’s purpose encompass “going green”? Sure. A few of the right size lawsuits, maybe? It’s easy to imagine they might innovate a new way to deal with the e-waste problem.
But—even if Apple did this, their purpose is not being green. They are not focused on that, nor are they a “conscious capitalism” kind of brand.
We can look at a lot of different brands and see this sort of thing happening across the board. Nike has a purpose; Coke has a purpose; Google has a purpose. None of them engage with conscious capitalism, except for where it overlaps with their existing purposes.
For Google, we can see they’ve adopted some “social justice” or “climate justice” stance. Google’s energy use creates a large portion of total Internet emissions. That Google is investing in green energy is a good thing—but it’s not their purpose. It overlaps with their purpose—“don’t be evil” and making things better or easier is within the brand’s mandate.
Nike might decide to push forward social justice by supporting athletes of colour. This “conscious capitalism” stance overlaps with their purpose. Nike supports superstars and “average” Joes and Janes like you and me. There’s no reason they shouldn’t support superstars like Serena Williams, LeBron James, and Naomi Osaka. There’s also no reason they shouldn’t also support kids who have basketball dreams.
Can a “Good Product” Be a Purpose?
The central question asked in this opinion piece was “why can’t a good product be your purpose?” And the answer is it can … to an extent.
As a rule of thumb, nobody wants to sell crap products. Very rarely does a brand set out with the intent to do that! They might want to sell “low-cost” products. A brand that sets out to sell crap on purpose is likely more interested in “making money” than an actual purpose.
“A good product” could be a purpose, if you’re thinking about it in a different way. We could see Apple’s purpose as selling “good products,” but it’s not about the product at all. They’re selling innovation. Apple’s products are good; so are a lot of Android phones, and they’re cheaper. Nokia, Samsung, and others produce good—or maybe even better—products.
This is why having “a good product” or “great service” isn’t enough to be a guiding purpose for a brand. Having the best product or service could be a purpose. That means you’re looking to outdo your competitors. You might be innovating as well. Why is your product or service the best? What do you do differently?
Just “having a good product” isn’t a purpose then. It’s kind of a low bar to set, and it’s a little vague too. What if your purpose is creating reliable, long-lasting products? Then your purpose might actually be trust or reliability—your customers know they can turn to you. If you’re Apple, then “innovative” product is actually the goal: you’re selling new ideas, new solutions. Sure, the products need to work.
So “good product” isn’t specific enough as a purpose. It’s a good idea, but you need to dig a little deeper. Having a “good product” doesn’t make your brand unique or stand out. Your competitors are probably trying to have good products too. How you define what “good” is speaks more to your purpose!
Getting beyond vague statements like “have a good product” will help you get to the real reason your brand exists. So, like always, we have to start with the why!
A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!
I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.
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