Hypocrisy and Brand Purpose

The more I help large enterprises with the design of their marketing (or content marketing, which is the same thing) strategies, the more I’m concerned about the race to find – sometimes to invigorate – new socially-acceptable, ethically-sustainable brand purposes. Enterprises that have done business, more or less ethically, more or less successfully, in the last decades, are now discovering that having a brand purpose might boost revenue, especially within the new generations of consumers – Millennials and GenZ.

I cannot hold back a smile every single time I hear words like: “Our audience has to understand our new brand purpose” or “It’s time to rethink our North Star”. If you had no brand purpose until today – and still run a successful business – why should you think about a new brand purpose NOW?

Maybe because, as Hanneke Faber, President for Europe at Univelver, points out, brand with brand purpose are destined to grow at much faster rate that brands without a noble promise. I might argue that all analysis presented by Ms. Faber are vague and without analytic foundations. Mark Ritson does a better job, here.

But let’s assume for a moment that the Unilever’s exec is right; still, the journey to an genuine brand purpose is full of dangers:

  1. By definition, brand purpose should be authentic; which means the purpose is supposed to have preceded the products and should represent the center of gravity of that enterprise’s activities; this is far from happening, in 99% of the cases;
  2. The reality is that most consumers (yeah, even young generations) don’t give a shit about brands, and as a consequence, about their purposes;
  3. Finally, we/consumers are not idiots; we can still feel the hypocrisy of selecting a purpose while ultimately pushing it for pure financial benefit.

Yet, there are some brands that are genuinely purpose-driven. Think at Patagonia, for example, where the purpose has always preceded the products, since its foundation – I will spend some time on Patagonia at the end of the post. Mark Ritson estimates “they (brand-purpose led companies) consist of about 0.2% of the world’s brands. The rest are commercially driven operations that are not necessarily evil, and often take a responsible approach to packaging and other business challenges, but are not in a position to intervene on major societal issues”. A sad scenario.

And so, let’s have a look at these authentic brands. My list is definitively not comprehensive. Still, it provides a good overview about enterprises who are embracing the brand purpose mantra; and all the lies they are telling us.

Starbucks, inspiring human spirit?

  • Mission statement/brand purpose: Inspire and nurture the human spirit. One person, one cup and one neighbour at a time. 
  • The reality: Starbucks tells us its brand purpose is to build community, while doing everything it can to minimise its tax payments. Last year Starbucks paid 2.8% of taxes: exactly £ 4.5m on £ 162m profit. And we all know the the best way to inspire the human spirit one neighbour at a time is paying local taxes, right? Actuall, we’re just happy with a good coffee experience, too.

Volkswagen, environmentally sound?

  • Mission statement/brand purpose: the Group’s goal is to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class.
  • The reality: Volkswagen intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing which caused the vehicles’ output to meet US standards during regulatory testing, but emit up to 40 times more poisonous toxins in real-world driving. The folks at Volkswagen deployed this programming software in about eleven million cars worldwide, including 500,000 in the United States, in model years 2009 through 2015.These toxins which were partially responsible for the death or disability of hundreds of people. 
  • The reality/2: Volkswagen itself continues to insist that although eight million cars sold in Europe were also fitted with defeat devices, they were not needed to pass more lenient EU emissions tests and therefore it has committed no crime in the EU. Weren’t environmentally sound vehicles???

Siemens, ethical and responsible?

  • Mission statement/brand purpose: Being Responsible – Excellent – Innovative, with responsible meaning that the company is committed to ethical and responsible actions.
  • The reality: Really? Siemens ended one of the biggest corporate corruption probes in history when it agreed in 2008 to pay about 1 billion euros in fines and penalties after investigations by U.S. and German authorities into bribes it paid to win contracts.

State Street and the diversity?

Google and accessible data?

Cadbury and the generous principles?

  • Mission statement/brand purpose: Cadbury launched a new purpose-filled positioning in 2018, to “shine a light on the kindness and generosity that we see in society”; it re-launched its global brand positioning as a “family brand founded on generous principles”.
  • The reality: Cadbury manages to pay zero corporation tax, for the seventh consecutive year. The company, which is a subsidiary of US giant Mondelez International, recorded a 740% jump in profit for the year to 31 December 2017, with turnover rising to £1.66bn from £1.65bn. Yes, very generous principles behind Cadbury’s actions.

Audi and the equal pay?

  • Mission statement/brand purpose: Spent millions on a feminist Super Bowl spot last year, which proclaimed: “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.”. In the ad, a father watches his daughter in a downhill cart race and thinks about whether she is being judged based on her gender. At the core of the ad is whether she will be paid less than a man, despite her talents.
  • The reality: No women sit on Audi’s Management Board and its 14 person American executive team only has two women. In the press release for the Super Bowl ad, the car company said it was publicly committed to supporting women’s pay equality and pointed out that half of the candidates for its graduate internship program must be female. Rather than avoiding the conflict Audi has responded to negative commentsgenerating even more criticisms.

Yet, there are some brands that are genuinely purpose-driven, as I mentioned already.  Take Patagonia: it helped create a national park, its supply chain boasts fair trade certified wages, organic cotton, traceable down, and responsibly sourced merino wool. What is absolutely clear is that Patagonia’s CEO Yvon Chouinard’s experiment – an experiment that may be possible only because Patagonia is not publically traded – is like nothing that has come before, and therefore deserves our closest attention.

But beside individual cases like Patagonia, what is generating this recent proliferation in term of brand purpose? Are we marketers overestimating our roles in our audience’s life? Is this the reason why we’re creating so many cases of disgraceful brand promises?

While we might do not discuss company’s rights to (legally) reduce tax bills we still suggest to not associate it with brand purpose exercises and pretend that consumers believe in its genuineness.

It’s just a way to boost your profits, and we all know it.

Reference list

When did marketers become so ashamed of managing brands? https://www.marketingweek.com/2018/09/21/mark-ritson-marketers-ashamed-managing-brands/

Interbrand 2018 top brand list https://www.interbrand.com/best-brands/best-global-brands/2018/ranking/

Stop propping up brand purpose with contrived data and hypocrisy https://www.marketingweek.com/2018/07/25/mark-ritson-brand-purpose-contrived-data-hypocrisy/

I’ll have my lamb without the lecture on the side, thanks https://www.theage.com.au/opinion/ill-have-my-lamb-without-the-lecture-on-the-side-thanks-20170117-gtt0hl.html

Obsess over your brand conviction, not brand purposehttps://mumbrella.com.au/obsess-over-your-brand-conviction-not-brand-purpose-517471

How millennials’ taste for authenticity is disrupting powerful brands https://www.ft.com/content/09271178-6f29-11e8-92d3-6c13e5c92914