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Is Brand Purpose Bullsh*t? (Yum! Brands Thinks So)

July 02, 2021


Is Brand Purpose Bullsh*t? (Yum! Brands Thinks So)

Yum! Brands’ CMO lashed out at Marketers using brand purpose as part of their practice. Of course, as someone who has been doing purpose—and doing it successfully—for decades now, I had to take this to task.

Quite simply, he’s wrong. He goes on to say that the only “purpose” of a brand is to make money. He questions whether people can be “emotionally attached” to toasters. (We can—it’s called the Tamagotchi effect.)

I get where he’s going with this. I railed against the “hollowing out” of brand purpose with Mondelez’s “Peopling” strategy. This is taking the look of purpose-driven marketing and stapling it on to a make-money strategy. That is, like he says, disingenuous.

So, no, brand purpose isn’t bullshit—but the way a lot of people are trying to do it is.

The Difference between Purpose and Conscientious Capitalism

I can forgive, to an extent, people who think the sole purpose of a business is to make money. Lots of people have encouraged this kind of thinking. You could probably walk up to 20 CMOs, 20 CEOs, and most of them would tell you that their business exists to make money.

Does it though? Most businesses exist to serve a need. We talk about “gaps” in the market and filling them. We can look at one of Yum! Brands’ own brands here: Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Colonel Sanders started KFC, but he wasn’t a prolific businessman. He had a string of failed careers. KFC is the one that actually was any kind of successful. And how did it get started? Sanders had a gas station in the 1930s, when cars and road trips were just becoming a thing. People who were on the road were often hungry or looking for a rest, so he started serving food and eventually added a café to the gas bar.

Add a “secret recipe” of 11 herbs and spices, a sale to a company turned the idea into restaurants, and an international conglomerate was born.

The original KFC existed to serve a need though: quick, cheap eats for people who were on the road.

So, that’s what we mean when we talk about purpose. Your business might exist to “make money” in some senses. But the reason it exists the way it does is because you are filling what you see as a gap in the market. You saw a need, and you fill it.

Google’s another example here: there were tons of search engines in the late 1990s, and all of them sucked. AltaVista, Ask Jeeves … even Yahoo!, which was a step up, wasn’t a great search engine. They didn’t do a very good job of finding you what you were actually looking for.

Thank goodness there wasn’t much on the web at that time. Can you imagine how much it would suck to try and search today’s web using the algorithms we had in 1995? If they couldn’t help us find what we were looking for then, how screwed would we be now?

Google’s founders saw a need here—we needed a better way to search the web. So they made it! And they’ve kept making it better and better, which is why Google is the biggest search engine. It’s why we don’t say “search it” but “Google it.”

And then Google did the same thing with email. They saw the email clients that were out there, like Hotmail and whatever else, and they made Gmail. And so on and so forth.

This Is Not the Same as “Conscious Capitalism”

There’s also some confusion over brand purpose and what’s known as “conscious capitalism.” They are not the same thing, even if they can look similar from a distance.

Brand purpose is what I explained: your reason for existing. Very rarely is that “to make money.” I’m doubting Larry Page and Sergey Brin sat down and said, “Hey, let’s make a search engine to make money.” (In fact, the two were against ad-supported search engines.) I mean, Google makes tons of money now. But that was never the intent or purpose—and that’s not why people adopted the search engine. They adopted it because it did a better job generating relevant search results than any other search engine.

Same with KFC. Did Colonel Sanders think, “Hey, if I sold these people fried chicken, I bet I could make a lot of money!” Maybe. Chances are he got sick of people asking if he could sell them anything to eat, “for the road.” Did he have money on his mind when he sold the recipe and the franchise to another company? Maybe. But the purpose was never “make money.” That came after identifying the need, the thing people wanted.

Conscious capitalism focuses on “doing good." In his remarks, Yum!’s CMO called out companies that think their purpose is “to make the world a better place.” That’s conscious capitalism in a nutshell.

And we’re seeing a lot of that lately. Cosmetics giant LUSH might be a good example. The company has long focused on “naked” packaging, vegan ingredients, fighting animal testing, and more. Any sort of “green” company is practicing conscious capitalism.

These companies often speak to this as their “purpose,” which is where the confusion exists. They’ll talk about a mission—to combat climate change, to promote social justice, to drive equality, etc. In effect, these companies have adopted “crusades” to make the world a “better place” as their “purpose.”

It’s still their purpose, in a sense—they saw a need, they’re fulfilling it. But they actively speak to the idea of a “better world.”

Most brands don’t need to do that. McDonald’s or KFC could tell me about their commitment to using biodegradable packaging. That maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing. But it’s not their brand, it’s not their identity, and it’s not their purpose. So McDonald’s and KFC don’t need to be on some big crusade for a better world. And that’s the difference between “conscious capitalism” and plain old brand purpose.

Money Talks, But Emotion’s Driving

The other problem with “your purpose is to make money” is that it cuts out the people factor—our customers.

If your sole purpose is to make money, why not take whatever funds you have and stick them in investments? Why even have products or retail locations or customers at all? Why have a business? Get into cryptocurrency or something (like Kodak did).

So again, we come back to the fact that making money is almost never a business’s purpose, its reason for existing. Most of the time … it exists to fulfill a need. One of our goals is to make money, sure! But it’s not the reason we exist, ultimately.

And, unfortunately, that attitude focuses on our customers’ wallets and nothing else. It forgets that our customers are making the decisions about what to spend their money on. When they make those decisions, emotion is the number one factor.

We all like to think we’re very rational and logical. But emotion plays a huge role in buying decisions. You go to the store and buy the same brand of BBQ sauce that your parents bought, because you trust the brand. Your parents trust it, so you do too. And you can think of all the great meals—and good times—you’ve had thanks to the sauce.

Or maybe you’re looking to try something new, so you see a brand that has a catchy slogan and colourful packaging. It feels “fun,” kind of irreverent, and it makes you chuckle, so you bring it home and test it out. If you have a great experience? You’re going to buy it again.

The king of this is Coke: Coke delivers so high on emotional satisfaction. They invented Santa Claus as we know him in North America and Europe, and they cash in on emotion. We’re told we can “have a Coke and a smile,” “taste the feeling,” or “open happiness” when we grab a bottle of Coke. 

All of it reminds you that a refreshing Coke is part of tons of pleasant experiences: seeing a movie, a good meal with friends, a hot day at the beach. Grab a Coke, because “Coca-Cola … makes good things better.”

This comes back to emotion. Whenever we are faced with a buying decision, we are guided by gut feelings, emotions.

And you can’t stir emotion in anybody if you have no idea who your brand is. And you can’t have any idea who your brand is if you don’t know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. So you have to know your purpose.

You Can’t Just Staple It on

If you walked into KFC and they told you, “We don’t care about what you want, all we want is your money,” how fast would you leave? Would you ever go back?

The unfortunate reality is this is what a lot of people feel whenever they interact with brands. Even brands that have strong identities—a lot of people are skeptical. And since businesses still hire people who think their purpose is “making money,” those customers aren’t wrong.

And the reason they’re suspicious is that people hate being used. That’s why they’d walk out of the KFC if you told them that you just want them to open their wallets. It’s why Mondelez’s “peopling” strategy feels so seedy. It’s a corporate attempt to pretend like they’re your pals to get you to open your wallet.

Have you ever heard someone complain that they hate dealing with a business because they’re “just a number to them”? That’s why you can’t have the attitude that your purpose is “to make money.” Because your customers want to matter. They want to be more than a collection of numbers—customer account number, lifetime value, dollars spent to date.

They want to be human beings. They want to have a relationship with you. And yes, they want to feel that emotional attachment to their toaster or their coffee mug! They are going to form emotional attachments to your brand, for better or for worse!

You want them to form positive relationships with you. And it’s tough to form a relationship with a company that wants to use you. It’s difficult to form a relationship with a company that pretends to be your friend, but only cares about your money.

We hate it when other people do that to us! Why would we put up with it from a brand?

And much like we won’t put up with “being used,” we find it hard to form relationships with people who are always changing. The same is true of brands. If the brand is always changing, you may hear customers saying, “I thought I knew you, but you’ve changed.”

If we want to keep making money and stay in business, we need customers. And if we want to keep the customers we have, then we have to form relationships with them. To do that, we need to be able to show them who we are—and that means we absolutely have to have a clear sense of our real purpose, the core of our brands.

And to do that, we have to remember 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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