Rachel Barnes: it's time to embrace purpose - and naïvety

The problem with 'marketing for good' is that it implies the rest is 'marketing for bad', somebody clever pointed out to me recently (you'll find him discussing another topic in this month's The Essay). While that's true, what's increasingly clear is how all brands need to ask themselves that eternal, existential question to secure their spot in tomorrow's world: why am I here? What's my purpose?

Finding your purpose: Marketing's role as a driving force for change
Finding your purpose: Marketing's role as a driving force for change

When planning this magazine, we considered several themes: why everything you know is wrong, broken marketing to mums, marketing for good. As the issue came together, however, there was one word that threaded throughout the content: purpose.

For Unilever, sustainability and purpose are now fundamentally linked. Indeed, in this issue, CMO Keith Weed declares that this is now the "only viable business model".

Purpose delivers growth

"We know that consumers increasingly want brands with purpose – and that purpose delivers growth." This view is particularly true for the millennial generation, he says.

Camelot’s Sally Cowdry believes Gen Y, which graduated during the financial crisis, cares about a brand’s values and social purpose as much as its commercial interests.

"The more a brand brings its purpose to life in its everyday operations, the more successful it will be. And businesses that build on the ideal of improving people’s lives grow three times faster than their competitors," she says.

Marketers, so in tune with consumer and societal change, have the opportunity to take the lead role – and in doing so become the driving force for businesses of the future

Not just about the environment

This isn’t just about the environment. Health, wellbeing and women’s empowerment are all key parts of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. According to Weed, businesses like his are being held to account on climate change and social inequality, and that will only come into sharper focus as the global population grows.

As an expected 1bn more people join the planet in the next decade, and perhaps another 3bn by 2050, the opportunity for marketers will shift. If you’re thinking: "Great, millions more people to buy my products", then you’re missing the point.

As columnist Tracey Follows explains, pressure on resources demands a change to our way of life, with the need for a 70% increase in food production by 2050.

Losing sight of who you are

However, Helen Edwards sounds a note of caution for companies seeking their purpose. The danger of ‘finding a higher purpose’ is that you lose sight of who you are or what you’re for, with some marketers curiously determined not to be defined by their brand’s original purpose. This then leaves a soft, unguarded spot where its heart should be – vulnerable to an eagle-eyed entrepreneur doing nothing more than filling that gap.

Edwards has a suggestion: bring in outside ignorance – or "intelligent naïvety" – that will lead to the critical questions being asked of your brand and business.

To some, ‘purpose’ might seem like an intangible luxury that it’s fine for the likes of Unilever to bang on about. However, these are fundamental, business-shifting ideas. Marketers, so in tune with consumer and societal change, have the opportunity to take the lead role – and in doing so become the driving force for businesses of the future.