Why marketers need to care about purpose

Purpose is just the latest buzzword to infect corporate marketing. But this time around, things are different, and we need to embrace it systemically.

If you have been in any field for long enough, you see how systems move in cycles. For example, the idea of purpose being a defining part of how a company operates is just the latest iteration of a familiar idea. 

In the 90s, companies had to show a commitment to corporate social responsibility, which for many manifested as not much more than a few charity quiz nights, and afternoons cutting back brambles on hillsides for voluntary organisations. 

Then came the early 2000s, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Sustainability shot up the corporate marketing agenda. Like CSR, it manifested in a range from vague, greenwashing commitment, to a deep and systematic rethinking of the corporation on more eco lines.

The Purpose Problem

And now, in the third decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves wrestling with the problem of purpose. It is not enough anymore to just make money; you also need to be making a positive impact on the world. While it found expression in the hyperbolic claims of tech start-ups who were “changing the world”, there is a deeper truth beyond that we do need to pay attention to.

People — and especially Millennials and Gen Z — are expecting the companies they interact with to be of use to the betterment of the planet or humanity. They expect them to have a purpose, beyond mere capitalism. This is equally true when they’re employees — or consumers. 

Like so many other things, this has accelerated thanks to the pandemic. Staring the fact of their own mortality in the eyes has affected many people’s views of the world. It’s one motivation behind the Great Resignation. As the tech writer and podcaster John Siracusa put it in his recent post announcing his decision to go indie:

The whole experience recalibrated my value system one more time. I started to think more about the limited number of years I have left—with my kids, in good health, on this earth. How do I want to spend that time?

People want meaning in their lives, in their work, and in where they live. And so much of that starts with their purchasing decisions. 

Why purpose is different 

There is one fundamental difference between purpose and the other ideas that preceded it: it emerged during the era of ubiquitous internet access. Why does that change things? It makes it so much harder to get away with just putting a façade of purpose on top of a company. 

For example, the chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely has made the fight against slavery in the chocolate supply chain a basic plank of both the central ethos of the company, and its marketing effort.

That’s a risky thing to do, unless you’re fully committed to it, as Ynzo van Zanten, until recently the company’s chief evangelist, explains:

“The whole issue of illegal child labour and even more than slavery in the cocoa industry is deeply hidden in Western Africa. It wasn’t something that was easily seen before the internet era.”

But, we are in the internet era and, as he points out, it makes it effortless for people to expose you if you’re not living up to your claims. Purpose-washing is riskier than greenwashing was. It’s just too damn easy to get busted nowadays. 

The transparency armour

Indeed, this happened to Tony’s Chocolonely earlier in 2022, when The Times reported that there were at least 1,700 child labourers in the company’s supply chain. 

Bad news for a brand selling itself on ethical purpose? Less than you might imagine. From that very report in The Times:

Yet in the year to April 2021, Tony’s found 1,701 cases of child labour in its supply chain, a huge rise from 387 the previous year.

(Emphasis mine.)

Because the purpose behind the Tony’s brand is deeply integrated into the business, they can get ahead of bad news, and be the one controlling the story. 

The purpose of purpose

And so, we find ourselves at a crossroads:

  • Purpose is inherent in the younger generations’ world views, and that influences their purchasing behaviour.
  • The internet has made exposing hypocrisy and flaws in the images companies choose to project infinitely easier than it was even two decades ago.
  • The pandemic has prompted a wide-scale re-evaluation of people’s beliefs and desires for their lives, triggering shifts in employment, choices of residence, commuting — and purchasing. 

The smart company — the smart marketeer — needs to adapt to this. And they must acknowledge that just putting a purpose layer around their existing business probably won’t be enough. 

Van Zanten again:

“There’s a whole generation growing up that is looking for a different system. That generation is looking for more happiness, is looking for more empathy. Looking for more peace. Looking for more love. And at the same time, there’s a whole generation of companies that is jumping on the bandwagon of purpose. They mimic purpose marketing without realising that isn’t what consumers are looking for.” 

And what are consumers looking for? “The ability to have a positive impact on the world through their lifestyle choices,” he says. 

Let’s make that easier for them. 

Ynzo van Zanten is one of the many marketing innovators and thinkers interviewed for our forthcoming book Next Level CMO, which will be available later this year.