Brand purpose is dead
A view from Sara Vanore Rewkiewicz

Brand purpose is dead

The death of purpose is a good thing. It is being replaced by something much more purposeful.

Brand purpose is our raison d'être, our North Star, our rallying cry. It’s full of emotion, promise and potential, and that’s why we love it.

However, the problem with purpose is that it has no teeth. It’s all talk, little action. Its original meaning has been diluted and discarded seemingly without a second thought. Short-sighted assumptions and excuses distract us, lowering the bar rather than testing our true measure. 

Sometimes old habits die hard. So thank you brand purpose for taking one for the team, and I mean that whole-heartedly. I’ve been beating the purpose drum pretty much my whole career, and perhaps it’s because I’ve been such a fangirl that I can say to fellow purpose lovers: our time is up. It’s now or never to evolve with the next generation, or risk being left behind. 

What we need is a reality check, and nobody prevails over the bullshit quite like young people today: "When I see a construct or context, immediately I wanna know what are you not supposed to do here and who are you gonna piss off? Not because I’m trying to annoy people, but I don’t always agree with or necessarily value pre-existing notions… People want to force those ways of being to continue simply because it’s all they know," says Baingor, 25, Lagos*. 

That spirit is reminiscent of the famous line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, first published more than 75 years ago: "Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them."

The voices of our youth are our voices of progress – this is nothing new, but absolutely vital. They have led revolutionary change for decades. Think the American Civil Rights movement (the average age of activists was 16) and recent school protests across the globe with #FridaysForFuture. What’s next: all systems go-time on youth-led strategy.

Indeed, the death of purpose is a good thing. Its demise, in fact, is being replaced by something much more purposeful, pun intended. Its successor, youth-led strategy, enlightens us with a new mindset to meet the pace and scale of change required to survive in the new world order that’s upon us. 

There’s no denying it: peak youth is here. We have the largest youth population in our planet’s history. Combine that with the fact we’re currently experiencing the two greatest seismic shifts humanity has ever seen – technological disruption and climate crisis – and that means the generational gap has widened seemingly further than it's ever been before.

"My mother told me that she feels I’m from out of this world or an alien... I take it as a positive thing," says Sakura, 18, Tokyo*. Go figure – 70% of Gen Zs in the US say their parents have a hard time giving them advice about the future because traditional systems have been so significantly disrupted. This is critical – purpose is being driven by a worldview that is, dare I say it, outdated – or will be shortly.

Since the dawn of time it seems we’ve assumed wisdom comes with age. Finally that hierarchy is being flipped on its head, and we’d be wise to heed the wisdom of a youth mindset. Gen Z’s (hyper) hyper awareness means they’re the enlightened ones, knowing themselves and the world perhaps better than anyone else ever has, or ever could have.

With the acceleration of change projected to persist, and likely at an even greater pace, all signs point to the generational gap only continuing to widen. In other words, whatever you’re imagining for the future, if it feels familiar and palatable, chances are young people will reject it, because their reality isn’t ours just yet. That’s the key differentiator between purpose-driven and youth-led strategy right there – the decisive future focus.

But more than that, it’s also how young people approach the future that we can learn from. Is this the Anxiety Generation? No. Anxiety implies inaction and if we know anything about young people today, it’s that they’re action-oriented. Their fears fuel desires to overcome, reimagine and reinvent themselves and the world around them. They subdue their fears to seize ultimate freedom to face not only the present but also the future head on. "I’m the younger generation, and I have a duty to send out courage," says Jiamin, 23, Shanghai*.

In less than a decade, it’s estimated that 40% of Fortune 500 companies will cease to exist. Are you surprised? As we enter a post-growth world, youth-led strategy is the new lens needed to reorient ourselves and rise to the challenges ahead with relentless urgency, collective action and unprecedented creativity – those are brand survival skills for Globalization 4.0, which is only just getting started. Instead of asking why do we exist, let’s be more pointed: what vital change(s) will we drive forward? 

For those who keep beating the same purpose drum, there’s a good chance those brands won’t be here in 10 years’ time. For those who make the switch to youth-led strategy, they may still lose, but they’re more likely to win, too. 

Doesn’t matter what business you’re in or what brand you are, being purpose-driven isn’t enough any more. Time to put brand purpose to bed. To be fit for the future, we must be youth-led. 

Sara Vanore Rewkiewicz is the director of Youth Oracles and strategy director at ODD London. 

*Quotes from young people have been taken from Youth Oracles, the first report released by ODD Futures, a unit at ODD London focused on Gen Z and making the futures they desire our reality.