Purpose can unleash potential to benefit people, planet and profit

—but only when its aligned with a company’s proposition and beliefs.

Brian P Kelly | Strategist

All at once, the advertising industry seems to be aghast about purpose as if it’s emergence out of Cannes marks a disruptive approach to business. This new found emphasis on what purpose is (and isn’t) spins from the innumerable brands that have attempted to transform themselves into brand activists recently and then showcase their efforts on the French Riviera. Apparently, it’s not ‘all about’ Brand Purpose anymore it’s about Brand Activism? And many are asking why some of these brands are getting hot under the collar all of a sudden and taking on social issues without the structure, capabilities, resources or credibility to do so.

Well, here’s our point of view. Activism isn’t a new kind of purpose — activism is a pursuit. Brands should only take on this kind of pursuit if it already aligns to their core belief, purpose, product, portfolio, culture, and capabilities – otherwise it becomes like fast food; cheap, convenient and instantly satisfying but ultimately demeaning and extremely unhealthy.

Take Phillip Morris as a case in point.The company announced at Cannes an ambiguous goal to create a “smoke free world”. That’s not purpose. That’s damage limitation and reverse engineering. The company was featured in the Cannes Lions Good Track, which according to their website is “devoted to brands, talent and industry leaders who shift culture, create change and positively impact society,”. Other organizations lined-up with Phillip Morris focused on environmental concerns, women’s rights and children’s education. What a travesty.

Phillip Morris announced to the WesternWorld they care about world health. But as Arvind Hickman points out, they aggressively market cigarettes in the East where tobacco marketing rules are more relaxed and “smoking remains a popular, profitable and deadly pastime,”. This year Phillip Morris will produce 800 billion cigarettes, which will create further health and financial issues for children, women, healthcare provision, society and the environment.

To kickoff 2019, BP introduced its first global campaign since the 2010 oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The campaign places great emphasis on environmental issues and focuses on solar energy. Robert Brulle, a Professor of Sociology at Drexel University, says “the bigger picture is that BP is still investing 97 percent of its business in oil,”. The rest is lipstick on a pig. Unilever CEO, Alan Jope, spoke at Cannes on this exactly. He articulated that corporate “woke-washing” is“polluting purpose.”

Companies and Brands right now have the power, the means and the tide of conscious consumerism to take on environmental and societal issues.  As Richard Edelman wrote in his 2019 executive summary “consumers have low confidence that societal institutions (i.e. government) will help them navigate a turbulent world,”. We couldn’t agree more. But often these same companies confuse themselves, each other and the general public at large. They aggressively or passively take stands toward something and then misappropriate culture, human belief and purpose by addressing issues that have absolutely nothing to do with what they produce or how they make money. As more brands reach far beyond the bounds of credibility and authenticity (checkout this bizarre campaign from Lush—the soap and bath-bomb retailer), distrust of brands, business and the marketing/advertising industry as a whole will only continue to grow.

And if Lush thinks that the cops are spying on us then consider this: data and information into how a company is performing, producing goods, managing its supply chain, treating its employees/suppliers and then distributing the profits is freely available. So whether they realize it or not, big data is gonna get mean and consumerism is gonna get nasty  – especially as the legal filters and restrictions that protect corporate anonymity gradually begin to get lifted.

Back to Cannes: Johnson & Johnson was awarded the Entertainment Lions Grand Prix for its documentary ‘5B’, which focuses on the Aids epidemic. This past spring Johnson & Johnson was named as a defendant in a pending class-action antitrust lawsuit. The company is alleged to have colluded with other pharmaceutical giants to control the market price of anti-HIV medication. Let that sink in — a documentary made for Johnson & Johnson about Aids grabs a Lion at Cannes while the company is in question for monopolizing on preventative medication for HIV?


‍The Bottom Line:

Honesty, integrity, self-awareness and humanity need to be integrated in all aspects of a company’s culture and go to market strategy. Full stop. Or run the risk of disfranchisement. What a brand or business believes about the world should anchor its ambition and shape its value proposition and purpose. Then and only then, can it unleash its potential to benefit people, planet and profit.