The Push For Brands To Serve A Higher Purpose

Martin BishopDecember 28, 20163 min

Two powerful forces are combining to push brands to catch up with Peter Drucker’s ideas about them serving a higher purpose.

Drucker, widely regarded as the father of modern business management was a strong proponent of businesses going beyond maximizing quarterly profits for shareholder benefit. Why? In his words “Most people need to feel that they are here for a purpose, and unless an organization can connect to this need to leave something behind that makes this a better world, or at least a different one, it won’t be successful over time.”

So What Forces Are Pushing Companies In This Direction?

1. The Economy: Uncertain economic conditions always impact both consumer confidence and marketing budgets. As Allen Adamson points out in this Forbes article, such conditions foster purpose-driven branding: “a company whose employees can answer the question, ‘Why are we here?’ will be the company that makes stronger connections with consumers in search of solutions to life’s new normal issues.” A growing number of companies have heard the call of higher purpose and become mission-marketers in the U.S. and the UK including P&G, Unilever, Nestle, Wal-Mart, General Mills and Sony.

2. Changing Media Dynamics: The challenge with social media for traditional marketers is the “social” bit. It’s less about broadcasting and publicizing, more about 1:1 conversations and dialogue. And the fact is you just can’t have a very interesting chat about a box of cereal or a can of soda. As Dove shows, there’s much more social media potential talking about real beauty than there is talking about the new range of beauty bars and lotions. As the media change and evolve, so will brands.

To What Purpose?

Back to Drucker. The sort of purpose he had in mind was not something superficial as represented by so many mission statements that companies have today. But something grand– like GE’s ambition to be: “the leader in making science work for humanity.”

I’ll leave you to pick through some examples to decide which of them seem grand vs. less grand. But, to give you some guidance:

More Grand If:

The purpose is connected to the intent of the founder (or a later visionary): Wal-Mart went through a few years where it was struggling to define itself. Should it move more upscale? Should it be more like Target? But then it looked back at its history and chose to embrace the vision of its founder, Sam Walton, which was, yes, to offer low prices but with the intent of helping people provide better lives for their families. With a renewed sense of purpose, Wal-Mart has direction and energy for its marketing programs and employee engagement with its “Save money. Live better” tagline. Charles Schwab is another company that rediscovered its purpose by considering its heritage.

Less Grand If:

It’s mainly about saving money: An umbrella campaign that features all the products in a portfolio can be much less expensive than spending money on each product individually. It’s a temptation for companies looking for ways to cut their marketing budgets. All they need is some kind of mission-statement-thingy that can cover all their stuff. With this kind of thinking, they usually end up with something bland and uninspiring to customers and employees alike. Or, as Jack Neff describes in the Advertising Age piece, mission statements that: “Can provoke eye rolls nearly strong enough to cause head trauma among journalists, not to mention the more cynical or maverick elements within corporations.”

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