Attacks on Brand Purpose Are Unwarranted

For those of you unfamiliar with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, it has had a long and distinguished role as the iconoclast of marketing science and media measurement.

In his wildly successful book “How Brands Grow,” the Institute’s director, Byron Sharp, went straight for the jugular of brand marketing, attacking assumptions about targeting, loyalty, trade spending, etc.

It’s never a bad idea to question dogma. Lately, though, Sharp has a new ox to gore: brand purpose. According to a recent article in Marketing Week, Sharp thinks “purpose could be the death of brands.” His opinion of marketers is well detailed in his blog.

So, is brand purpose a king with no clothes?

Brand purpose has been in the public eye as a tool for marketing for at least 20 years. It’s not like this is a hot new fad. Former Procter & Gamble CMO Jim Stengel is certainly responsible for the popularization of brand purpose as a tool in the C-suite. His consultancy remains a brain trust that has helped hundreds of huge brands improve their marketing. 



Despite this success, The Marketing Science Institute is suggesting that purpose is more likely to harm brands than to help them. It has attacked proof points and research that support purpose.

Its general strategy for attack is typical: invalidate the “proof” used to validate the concept. However, attribution experiments are difficult, because it’s hard to get a clean control group -- and success has a thousand fathers.

In any case, the case against purpose is straight out of the gaslighting playbook. The naysayers are deconstructing proof points, often without much context, in an attempt to cast doubt. You know, like the idea that masks don’t work because germs can go through them. 

Purpose, according to sources online, is a process to understand and refine why the brand does what it does. In this regard, purpose is a foundation, and an organizing principle. It is not cause marketing, but a cause can certainly be aligned with a brand’s purpose.

Purpose, done right, links the brand from the “why” into the emotions and needs of the consumer, and the connection between a brand and consumers’ emotion is marketing gold.

Even so, Sharp is not alone in his skepticism.  One expert I spoke with points out that purpose pulls brands off their focus, and so can be broadly dysfunctional inside a brand organization. He notes further that when there is a cause unaligned to the brand benefit, a brand can be damaged. That seems reasonable.

So purpose done wrong or overzealously can be damaging, but any process done wrong can be damaging. The problem is that the headline says that a marketing guru says purpose will kill your brand. That’s tabloid, right up there with asteroids and aliens. And like all tabloid claims, there are shreds of truth.

The anti-purpose camp points out in an article in Branding Magazine that a brand cannot optimize both the needs of a population and the need for profit. Thus, claims the article, standing on purpose is not commercially viable long term.

But that’s a false dichotomy -- doing good versus making money -- and the article revolves around an academic model of an economy, not an emotional connection between consumers and brands.

Another complaint from the anti-purpose camp is that purpose, as a strategy for brand management, makes people feel better about their jobs without necessarily building the brand. But happy, motivated people always make a better business. The question is whether the cost is greater than the benefit.

In the end, no matter what you are selling, a brand that lands in the emotional sweet spot of a customer, whatever that looks like, is more likely to succeed than one that doesn’t. Purpose, as a brand strategy, can make that happen.

Using purpose to bridge a brand’s why with emotion and benefit is good for all aspects of marketing. Attacking purpose because it might be implemented badly will inevitably cause some brands to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

2 comments about "Attacks on Brand Purpose Are Unwarranted".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, November 5, 2021 at 5:30 p.m.

    Very interesting Ted, and you raise some very valid points.   Sharp's work with "How Brands Grow" was pretty rigorous.

    I agree that "So purpose done wrong or overzealously can be damaging, but any process done wrong can be damaging."

    Is there the potential that some marketers that have been less successful (to put it nicley) are more attracted to marketing approaches such as 'brand purpose' that may be tarnishing its performance?

  2. Ted Mcconnell from Independent Consultant replied, November 5, 2021 at 8:18 p.m.

    Thanks John. Absolutely. Brands in trouble will try a lot of things. Ultimately though, if the product does not perform there is no amount of purpose that can save it. 

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