Why “purpose” alone is a distraction for brands seeking to drive real change, writes Code and Theory CEO Dan Gardner
We’re living in the age of polarization. In the attention economy, the nuanced view holds little sway. As it is with politics, so it is with the other ‘P’ word: purpose.
It seems you’re either in the ‘enough already’ or the ‘double-down’ camp. We’ve always been a contrary bunch, which is why we’re taking a time out from the whole purpose fight. It’s not just a waste of energy. It entirely misses the point.
It’s not that we don’t accept the arguments and the frequently-quoted studies
asserting that consumers prefer brands that do good. It’s more so that when a brand attaches itself to a good cause (even when it’s super successful, like Dove or Patagonia) there’s always going to be some tension. After all, buying more stuff isn’t the most direct route to a sustainable future.
If we really want to change the world for the better (and in these doom-laden times, who doesn’t?) shouldn’t we be more ambitious about the power of purpose?
Finding good business opportunities by doing good — rather than simply creating an association with some loosely-related ‘purpose’ — can and should be something all brands aspire to do.
In fact, if we’re going to create the kind of future where we hang on to the hard-won benefits of the last 100 years’ progress, it’s essential.
We call this ‘Behavioral Business’ — and there are a range of traits that define this kind of brand.
They define their categories — or even create new ones.
They are driven by innovation, not merely good intentions. And it starts with meeting an unmet need — one that might be just as emotional as it is practical, but with the long-term intent of changing consumer behaviors. For example, people are increasingly concerned about plastic waste. That anxiety represents a need. Big brands like adidas are meeting that need by creating shoes that are made of
This opens up a new subcategory that addresses the concerns of a key audience. If you are passionate about reducing your plastics footprint, you will likely look for
recycled shoes the next time you go shopping for them. That’s driving positive change.
They find real problems to solve
is using a new approach — behavioral science — to address the issue. Having seen that 95% of all security breaches are caused by individual mistakes, rather than touting their prowess at stopping hackers, they try to motivate individuals to improve their security by changing their behavior. Purpose alone isn’t enough to influence how people live their everyday lives — brands need to give consumers products and services that actually back it up. After all, behavioral change is how you integrate into the consumer’s life, drive loyalty, and ultimately business results.
They succeed through category promotion, not competing over purpose.
Imagine you’re a brand in the keto snacks space. While you have competitors, your biggest opportunity is not to be the most “purposeful” brand in the space. It’s to attract more and more people to the keto lifestyle so that your category claims a much larger share of the overall market.
It makes business sense, therefore, for brands in a burgeoning category to focus on raising awareness and changing the way people act on a common issue, rather than just touting their own unique strengths.
An ongoing research study from Kantar
supports this view, demonstrating that brands can achieve only incremental growth by beating their competitors. However, if they manage to grow the value of an entire category, they can ignite explosive growth. Category shifts are usually driven by a change in the way people behave.
They set themselves up for success when humans need change.
They are often in the right place in the market at the right time. For example, meatless products have been around forever. But a combination of factors — perceptions of health, the rise of veganism and vegetarianism, scientific advances in plant proteins, and concerns about the environmental impact of livestock — have made meatless products into a fast-growing category.
When a brand creates positive change, it leverages multiple factors that ultimately affect the foods consumers buy and eat. That is behavioral business.
Put simply, too often when we talk about purpose, we think of it as something virtuous, rather than innovation-driven and business-oriented.
But when we change the lens to focus on the positive progress a brand seeks to make, we unleash the potential of the whole business operation, not just one aspect of it.
It is not merely about taking a position that people admire. For brands to demonstrate true purpose through Behavioral Business, they need to stop taking a stand and start walking the walk, changing the way people behave. Only then can these purposeful endeavors have a meaningful impact on society and business.
Dan Gardner is CEO of Code and Theory