The pitfalls of purpose

Alex Murrell
9 min readApr 18, 2020
Photo credit: Christopher Burns

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Purpose is polarising.

There are those who promote it as a paragon of positioning and a silver-bullet strategy for success. Then there are those who refute purpose’s power and dispute its capacity to connect with consumers.

It is clearly a debate that divides. So let’s review the evidence.

In late 2011 Jim Stengel published Grow. The book analysed 50,000 brands, across 28 categories and more than 30 countries. Between 2000 and 2011 the stock prices of the 50 best performing brands grew an average of 393% compared to a 7% decline for the S&P 500. Stengel found that a single trait united these high achieving brands: they were all driven by a desire to improve people’s lives.The book’s conclusion was clear:

“Maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible. They’re inseparable.”

Grow, it seems, was a cut and dry win for the brand purpose proponents. But the case is not quite so clear.

Three days after the book’s publication Byron Sharp, Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, wrote a blistering critique of the study. Sharp’s interrogation criticised the book for succumbing to sampling errors, halo effects, confirmation bias and circular logic. To quote Sharp:

“The Stengel Study is yet another study that is deeply flawed, it tries to look like science, but turns out to be merely a story, one that will appeal to many but tells us nothing reliable (or new) about the world.”

So who’s right? Is brand purpose the secret to success or is it an ineffective initiative?

This answer is neither.

In 2004, a Dove survey of 3000 women found that only 2% considered themselves to be beautiful. The brand quickly reoriented itself around a central vision: to make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety. Since this purpose’s inception, Dove’s sales have doubled, Beauty Sketches became the most watched online advert ever and AdAge recognised the Campaign for Real Beauty as the best of the 21st Century.

But not everyone has been so successful. For every success story we have a plethora of painted-on purposes that have missed the mark and fallen flat.

Brand purpose does not guarantee growth, nor does it forecast failure. It is not 100% foolproof, nor is it 100% flawed. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

This article argues that there are three major pitfalls brand purposes fall into. Purposes like Dove’s have succeeded because they have avoided these traps.

They have been credible, considerate and committed.

Photo credit:Alexander Krivitskiy.

Pitfall 01: Not being credible.

The benefit ladder is a classic tool in the strategist’s toolbox.

We start by identifying a product truth, ‘ladder up’ to a functional benefit, then elevate once more to an emotional territory. Simple. But all too often brands get it wrong. They travel too far up the ladder and arrive at a purpose that is completely disconnected from the product they started with.

Mark Ritson, ex-Marketing Professor at Melbourne Business School, put it eloquently:

“As marketers, we want to try and get as high up the ladder as we can. The higher we can go the more we can charge and the more successful we will be. When we get to brand purpose we go too high, we reach too far. We’ve jumped off the benefit ladder.”

In an attempt to avoid this mistake Andy Whitlock, founder of The Human Half, recommends strategists strive for the “reasonable reach”. He argues we should ladder high enough that we elevate our brands above their rational benefits but not so high that we crush all credibility.

In his article Brand Purpose Without all the Nonsense, Whitlock says:

“You can’t just invent a purpose that isn’t grounded in reality. It has to be something that your business can credibly fulfil and that people want to buy into. (…) If your purpose is too high, people will think you are too.”

Sailing past the reasonable reach is one of brand purpose’s most common pitfalls.

Take Heineken. The brand’s ‘Open Your World’ advert depicts people resolving wildly different opinions. Over the course of 4-minutes the beer, and the conversations it enables, unites right and left wings, feminists and misogynists, eco-campaigners and climate-change deniers, trans people and transphobes.

The overreach is obvious. Beer does not help unite those with diametrically opposite beliefs. And even if it did, Heineken would not be any better at doing so than its competition.

Back to Mark Ritson:

“Perhaps (…) Heineken have very clear data showing that if British beer drinkers associate a brand with transgender rights, environmental protection and feminism they will switch brands. Or, and this is my suspicion, Heineken has joined the increasingly large posse of brands that have stopped seeing marketing as a way to grow awareness, drive preference and ultimately increase sales.”

Healing the social divisions in the world is a noble and worthwhile goal. But it is not one which Heineken can credibly claim.

And so my first principle of brand purpose is simple. Be credible. Build your purpose on a role that your product actually performs.

Photo credit: Nael F.

Pitfall 02: Not being considerate.

The Marketoonist, Tom Fishburne, has a wonderful cartoon that depicts a brand manager in a meeting with a senior marketeer. The manager explains that for the next campaign the brand would be taking a stand on social issues. He describes how Millennials want brands to be belief driven and that the brand can no longer sit on the sidelines. The manager’s colleague politely asks which issue the brand would rally against. The brand manager quickly responds, “Still working on it. But we’ve booked Kendall Jenner”.

In describing his cartoon, Fishburne writes:

“Taking a stand is increasingly part of marketing planning. And yet social stands that are only campaign-deep invariably come across as only campaign-deep. Last year’s Pepsi ad misfire with Kendall Jenner joining a social protest is a cautionary tale.”

Fishburne’s critique of the campaign-deep Pepsi ad is fair, but I believe its issues ran much deeper. It was also an incredibly tone-deaf misappropriation of a deeply sensitive cultural moment.

To fully understand the backlash the ad received we need to take a step back. Since July 2013, Black Lives Matter activists have protested police killings of black people, racial profiling, police brutality and the racial inequality of the US criminal justice system. During a 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, a Reuters photographer captured the image of Ieshia Evans defiantly facing down heavily armed police while two officers rushed to handcuff her. This image has come to symbolise what was, and continues to be, an incredibly sensitive subject. It’s a single image that crystalises black America’s fight against systemic violence and racism.

After just one paragraph of context, it becomes clear that Pepsi’s decision to co-opt the iconic image and cast a super-rich, highly privileged, white celebrity as the heroic protagonist who defuses societal unrest is laughable.

After a day of intense criticism, a Pepsi spokesperson announced that the ad was to be taken down:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

And so to my second principle of brand purpose. Be considerate. Treat culturally important subjects with sensitivity.

Photo credit: Haris Memović.

Pitfall 03: Not being committed.

Trust in advertising is at a low.

Ipsos interviewed almost 18,000 adults aged between 16 and 64 across 23 countries. The study found that only 13% deemed ad executives to be trustworthy. The only two jobs with poorer perceptions were government ministers and politicians. But it gets worse. In six of the surveyed countries, advertisers came bottom of the table on trust.

The misuse of brand purpose has not helped.

At last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity, the Unilever CEO Alan Jope, warned brands against ‘woke-washing’. He argued that brands who communicate a purpose, but don’t act accordingly, are tarnishing the entire concept.

“Woke-washing is polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply.”

You cannot paint on purpose. You cannot treat it as a communications tactic. You have to put it at the centre of your organisation. It has to inform everything you do.

Unfortunately not everyone got the memo.

In March 2017, the financial services firm State Street Global Advisors unveiled Fearless Girl: a bronze statue of a little girl facing down Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull. The installation, created to promote State Street’s Gender Diversity Index fund, became a potent symbol of female leadership, a major tourist attraction, and one of the most highly honoured campaigns in the history of the Cannes Lions.

A noble cause. But all was not well. Seven months after unveiling the statue, it came to light that State Street do not practice gender equality when it comes to paying their staff.

According to Bloomberg:

“State Street Corp., the $2.6 trillion asset manager that installed the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street, agreed to settle U.S. allegations that it discriminated against hundreds of female executives by paying them less than male colleagues. The custody bank will pay $5 million to more than 300 women, following a U.S. Department of Labor audit that uncovered the alleged discrepancies, according to a settlement agreement disclosed Wednesday.”

State Street were talking the talk. But they weren’t walking the walk.

If you’re going to do brand purpose, you have to do it. You have to commit to it. You have to be consistent across your actions and consistent across time.

And so we come to my third principle of brand purpose. Be committed. Align all of your brand’s actions to your purpose.

Photo credit: Zach Guinta.


So there you have it. Brand purposes that miss the mark fall into one of three pitfalls. They pursue a purpose that is too far removed from their product, they trivialise a culturally sensitive subject and they act in contradiction to their claims.

Successful purposes avoid these pitfalls.

They build a purpose on a role their product actually performs, they treat culturally important subjects with sensitivity and they align all of their brand’s actions.

The result is a brand that is credible, considerate and committed.

The result is a brand like Patagonia.

For over 30 years, Yvon Chouinard’s outdoor apparel brand has lived and breathed its three-strand mission statement: to build the best product, to cause no unnecessary harm and to use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis.

Since 1985, the company has donated 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of natural environments ($89m to date). In 2002 it established the ‘1% for the Planet’ non-profit that encourages other businesses to do the same. In 2011 it ran a full-page advert in The New York Times telling shoppers to repair or reuse an existing jacket rather than buy a new one. In 2016 it opposed the excesses of mass consumerism by donating 100% of sales on Black Friday to environmental organisations. In 2018, after Donald Trump cut corporation tax from 35% to 21%, it donated its entire $10 million saving to help combat climate change.

But it isn’t a charity. Like Dove, Patagonia has a purpose that performs. According to Time:

“Patagonia is privately held, but a company representative told TIME that sales quadrupled over the past decade and recently surpassed $1 billion.”

Like positioning itself, brand purpose can be done terrifically, and it can be done terribly. It can build a brand, or it can backfire. It’s all down to the approach.

When it comes to purpose our decade of disagreement has not been particularly productive.

We must not settle at the extremes. We must not avoid nuance. We must not think in black and white because to think in black and white is to not think at all.

We must learn to love the grey. We must not back theories blindly. Nor must we write off techniques in their entirety. We must identify why good work works and why failures fall flat.

That, at least, is the purpose of this article.

Want more?

Thanks for reading The Pitfalls of Purpose. If you enjoyed the piece, you may like to check out some of my other articles. The most popular are The Ageism in Advertising, Magpie Marketing and The Digital Dark Side. You can also subscribe to receive new articles direct to your inbox at