Dear Rance, Are You Being Obtuse On Purpose?

Every now and then, during my 300 or 400 years columnizing over at Ad Age, owner/editor Rance Crain and I would stage a catfight. I’d assert one thing, he would assert the opposite, and the fur would fly. It was easy to do because we agreed on so little -- but fun, because I got to call the boss names. Insubordination, however contrived, is always good for a few yucks.

Sigh. Not anymore. Rance is no longer my boss; I suppose, in fact, he’s my competitor. So no matter how dumb a position he takes, name-calling would be ungentlemanly.

So I’ll go right to the vulgarity. Yo, Rance, WTF?

Your column last week, titled “Is the era of purpose-driven ads (finally) over?” was just so wildly screwed up in so many ways, I wondered if you were huffing the printers’ ink. You conflated a handful of concepts -- marketing with purpose, cause-related marketing and purpose-driven advertising (whatever that is) -- as if they were all the same thing.



Let’s start there: they aren’t the same. Purpose-driven marketing is nothing more aerie-fairie than figuring out why you drag your sorry butt out of bed every morning. What does your brand do that makes anyone better off, and how can you maximize those benefits? It is not a positioning. It is not a slogan. It is a raison d’etre that informs every brand action and inaction from the C-suite to the loading dock. It is not merely happy talk for employees or customers. It is the North Star in a brand relationship with all stakeholders.

You hang your premise on the case of Procter & Gamble, where CEO Robert McDonald and CMO Marc Pritchard (and his predecessor Jim Stengel) have, as you say, “carried the message to podiums across the world.” But you have chosen a poor example. Yes, P&G has been positively evangelical about purpose, but it is also a company that talks the talk without much walking the walk. Brand managers have to go through the exercise of divining a brand purpose, but their career paths and compensation are tied to the same old metrics of the P&G brand-management system.

There is no concrete incentive to embrace the kind of Relationship Era marketing that is conducive to doing business purposefully. There is a great incentive to do price promotion and retail end caps. Yet when P&G does fully embrace purpose-driven marketing, as it did with Secret antiperspirant, the outcome both lifted sales and spirits of women worldwide -- not to mention a very motivated team in Cincinnati.

Why you are suspicious of human uplift is a mystery to me. I can almost see you high-fiving yourself, Rance, after making this observation: “…if this approach catches on, one company's noble and uplifting pitch will not be much different from another company's, and we'll not only have parity products but parity nobility and uplift.” Zing. It does momentarily sound like you’ve located a logical flaw in brand purposefulness. Alas, however, you have incinerated a straw man.

Purpose is not a campaign or a gimmick or PR window dressing. It is not positioning. It does not aim to be differentiating. Purposefulness is an ethic. A worldview. A mentality. And it is not merely the right way for brands -- and all institutions -- to operate in a digitally connected world. It is the only way. Loss of mass-media reach, involuntary transparency, social media chatter and shifting values in the society are increasingly obsoleting advertising persuasion. We are now living and doing business in the Relationship Era, in which everyone is now not only judged for far more than dictated ad and PR messages, but for more than even the goods and services themselves.

People increasingly place value in values. Every brand is being evaluated 24/7 based on its inner self. Ask BP, Johnson & Johnson, United Airlines, Bank of America, Chick-fil-A, Progressive Insurance, Appleby’s and Research in Motion what their billions upon billions of dollars worth of advertising have earned them lately.

Hint: the answer is not “trust.” In a socially mediated world, indifference is expensive, hostility is unaffordable and trust is priceless.

I lifted that thought from Can’t Buy Me Like -- the book Doug Levy and I wrote, and which launched last week. It's jam-packed with data and vivid case histories illustrating how such such purpose-driven brands as Zappos, Patagonia, Panera, Krispy Kreme, Ikea and Southwest Airlines outperform their competitors in any metric you care to choose -- and do so with significantly lower promotional expense.

I encourage you to pick up a copy or 5000. But if you don’t want to read the whole book, you can read the trade-magazine article that spawned it. It was titled "The Human Element" and was shared by inspired readers nearly 3000 times.

It appeared, 14 months ago, in Ad Age.

9 comments about "Dear Rance, Are You Being Obtuse On Purpose?".
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  1. Ric Dragon from DragonSearch, March 11, 2013 at 8:04 a.m.

    Not sure about the kerfuffle, Bob - but do like what you have to say about purpose - and look forward to picking up the book. I've been following Marc Pritchard's evangelizing for awhile on this topic.

  2. Robert Wheatley from Emergent -- The Healthy Living Agency, March 11, 2013 at 10:07 a.m.

    High-fiving thru the electronic ether here. Could not be said with more conviction and shall we say, purpose. I see the schism routinely when the intellectual side of the purpose argument is embraced. But the reality of behavior is, yeah never mind. I'm on a mission as it were to marry the compelling point of view about how consumers interact with brands, and the behavior of brands and brand stewards themselves.

  3. Michael Baer from Ipsos Media Development, March 11, 2013 at 10:17 a.m.

    Totally agree, Bob. Wrote this article about a year ago.
    Michael Baer

  4. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, March 11, 2013 at 10:34 a.m.

    "Purpose is not a campaign or a gimmick or PR window dressing."

    Bob, truer words have not been written! And you are so right that too many companies and marketers talk the talk without walking the walk of what it really means to drive marketing with a purpose. That said, I give the P&G's of the world some credit for at least advancing the conversation.

    In the past year, I have become very interested in taking purpose driven marketing to an even more elemental level -- actually starting with business model and product itself (long before the marketing begins). This is essentially creating a new kind of capitalism which builds economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. This concept is called "Shared Value," and it was suggested a couple of years ago by Harvard's Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in an HBR article. Here is a link to an article on Shared Value.

    Keep fighting for a purpose in marketing, Bob. Hopefully Rance Crain and Ad Age will get on board, too.

  5. Doug Levy from MEplusYOU, March 11, 2013 at 10:49 a.m.

    Patrick -

    Thanks for the great post! So glad to hear about your interest in purpose. Clarity of beliefs and purpose impacts all decisions, including product development ones. (In fact, whether the product decisions are guided by purpose is for me the telltale sign to distinguish whether a brand is marketing on purpose or cause. The later tends to be donating to a charity to curry favor - nothing authentic about it.)

    While "Shared Value" adds something to the dialogue, I have another suggestion for you. Check out Conscious Capitalism (Web site, organization, and new book). In many ways, Can't Buy Me Like focuses on the customer stakeholder as an application of the principles of Conscious Capitalism.

    Good luck with your work! Thanks for sharing.

    Doug Levy (co-author Can't Buy Me Like, @douglevy1)

  6. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, March 11, 2013 at 11:04 a.m.

    Doug, thanks for your response! I intend to buy your and Bob's book this week. Regarding Conscious Capitalism, I love the concept. However, I know that Whole Foods founder John Mackey is a big player behind that movement (and he wrote the book "Conscious Capitalism"). I have difficulty squaring the philosophy behind "Shared Value" and what I believe it means to be a conscious capitalist with Mr. Mackey's well known support for Libertarianism.

  7. Kevin Lee from Didit, March 11, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    Nothing like a good argument to "sell papers" or books for that matter. As long at the fit between the "purpose" and the brand makes sense a tie-in can indeed be very powerful. Clearly not all customers are willing to change behaviors (brand or merchant choice) and attitudes (about a brand) based on marketing with purpose, but one of my companies, has generated millions for nonprofit causes all based on cause marketing dollars. And the momentum is growing. I can't see why anyone would want authentic cause marketing or purpose driven marketing to fail. It creates a rare win-win-win. Consumer, Cause and Brand.

  8. Doug Levy from MEplusYOU, March 11, 2013 at 2:31 p.m.

    Patrick - You may be more aligned with John than you know! Remember that the media can take things out of context to capture viewership or sell papers. I suggest you read Conscious Capitalism - I anticipate that you'll be pleasantly surprised - and even inspired!!

  9. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, March 11, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.

    Doug, I am open to most anything! I did read John's very long article on Conscious Capitalism about a year ago. He definitely has a lot of good ideas.

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