They say that with great power comes great responsibility.
This is clearly something Keith Weed takes pretty seriously. In the same week that his "great power" was confirmed by being voted the world’s most influential CMO, his company Unilever sought to display "great responsibility" by spearheading a drive to "un-stereotype" advertising at Cannes.
It’s this kind of industry-wide leadership that no doubt cemented Weed’s status. Having the biggest budgets is one thing, but what really counts is an appetite for driving change that spreads to other organisations, and in this regard he stands alone.
I just hope this crusade goes better than his last one.
You see, the thing about this power-responsibility stuff is that good intentions aren’t enough. Sometimes you can wreak havoc even if you try to do everything right, and nobody in marketing has proved this more in the past few years than Weed. His principal crime? The promotion of brand "purpose".
Counter-intuitively, the increasing focus on "purpose" – at least as Weed and his acolytes have defined it – is leading not to a diversification of brands, but in fact a homogenisation.
Now, the word "purpose" is pretty important in business. Literally it means "the reason something exists", and it’s probably fair to say that every company could do with one of those. If you don’t have a reason to exist then you are by definition pointless, which naturally isn’t a great marketing platform. Better purposes mean better businesses – more useful, more insightful, more unique.
You would think therefore that the industry should be indebted to the man who spearheaded the "purpose movement". Logically his legacy would be an explosion of differentiation and innovation, as each business tries to carve out its unique place on this earth, in ever more creative and helpful ways.
Counter-intuitively, the increasing focus on "purpose" – at least as Weed and his acolytes have defined it – is leading not to a diversification of brands, but in fact a homogenisation. Rather than prompting brands to think about their markets differently, it is in fact leading them to cluster around a handful of common spaces.
It all comes down to definition. In short, "purpose" no longer means "the reason something exists". Instead it has been recast as a synonym for "social responsibility".
Becoming "purposeful" doesn’t now mean identifying a unique value that can be brought to the world. It simply means becoming more sustainable. Or maybe supporting disadvantaged communities. Or celebrating diversity. Or indeed promoting any worthy cause that can draw attention away from the organisation’s core identity and genuine purpose, which, chances are, is something they’re not quite so proud of.
Check out this interview with Weed in 2015 to see this logic in action:
Weed proposes that brands with purpose deliver growth. Yup, hard to disagree with that given that, as discussed earlier, the alternative is being pointless. However he then goes on to equate that purpose with sustainability – as if Unilever and all the brands in its portfolio exist only for this cause.
If that’s the case, they might as well pack up and go home. Clearly Unilever have competitors in each of their categories that are well ahead of them in the sustainability game.
It’s hard to see how brands like Axe and Persil can compete with purer competitors such as Lush and Ecover in that space. Weed made the error of equating purpose with worthiness and in doing so seemingly forgot what his brands are really for.
Thanks to his influence this error has now become so common as to be the norm, thus rendering the word "purpose" essentially useless.
Now, this doesn’t mean social responsibility is not a worthwhile ambition. Naturally every organisation should endeavour to be as responsible as possible. It’s just that with a handful of exceptions this is not the core purpose of the majority of brands.
It’s an understandable mistake make, I suppose. After all, many of the world’s genuinely purposeful brands (such as Tesla, Lush, and Unilever’s very own Dove) are occupying these types of spaces. However that doesn’t mean that to become purposeful other brands need to copy them, in fact quite the opposite. We already have these brands, these market spaces are already filled.
Brands like Red Bull, Apple, Airbnb, Monster, Southwest Airlines, and Harley-Davidson are all clearly purposeful, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe them as worthy. Worthwhile yes, but not worthy.
You need to bring something different to the party, offer something on top of your green credentials; otherwise customers might as well just go to the originals.
Brands like Red Bull, Apple, Airbnb, Monster, Southwest Airlines, and Harley-Davidson are all clearly purposeful, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe them as worthy. Worthwhile yes, but not worthy. Hopefully they operate in a responsible way, but in each case responsibility is a way of operating, not the reason for operating in the first place.
So when you’re thinking about your purpose, think broadly. You are not Ben & Jerry’s, you are not Dove, you are not Tom’s, you are you.
Your goal is not to blend in, but to stand out. And the best way to do that is to know what unique value you provide. Figure that out and deliver on it, and you’ll truly be "doing good".
Alex M H Smith is the founder of Basic Arts.