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Is Purpose a ‘Hero Trap’?

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‘Mr Goodvertising’ Thomas Kolster warns brands and marketers at Advertising Week Europe about the start of a “post-purpose” era and the need for ‘purposeful’ work to become ‘transformative’

Is Purpose a ‘Hero Trap’?


For years now, ‘purposeful marketing’ has been held up on a pedestal as a moral good and generally something for advertisers to aim for when creating a new campaign. After all, what good is your new water bottle company if your products aren’t also saving water, saving plastic and saving the world? 

‘We’re in business to save our home planet’ reads Patagonia’s website - just one of the key examples of ‘purposeful advertising’ that Thomas Kolster highlights as being in need of evolution before your brand and clients go extinct. Speaking at Advertising Week Europe, Thomas explains his theory for the future of ‘purposeful marketing’ and how brands can more effectively motivate people to be part of the change.

As opposed to 10 years ago, Thomas - a marketing and sustainability expert with two books published on the topic - says that today, ‘purposeful marketing’ has spread throughout the industry to a large extent. However, he isn’t convinced that this proliferation has translated into effectiveness - deeming purpose a ‘Hero Trap’. “I can't even drink water from a water bottle without them sort of screaming ‘Better Water - Better World’... What the hell does that mean? The space right now looks a little bit like this: every brand talking about how goddamn good they are.”

He continues with his evaluation of this approach to purposefulness, “People aren't really buying this nonsense… it’s just sort of this advertising lingo. So where do we go from here?” He highlights the two key aims of purposeful marketing-done-right as, firstly “to motivate people” to enact change and secondly, to “evolve and understand the underlying business case” to build the brand. So where are brands going wrong?

Citing Deloitte’s Gen Z and Millennial research, Thomas explains that despite a decade of ‘purposeful marketing’ being in the spotlight, there is still a significant gap between consumers “who say they want to buy from a reputable company” and “those who follow through” - a gap of 39%. He says that to bridge this gap, the focus can no longer be on what a brand says or does - the promises that they make to the consumer - but rather, a ‘post-purpose market’ is “about who that brand can help us become.”

For example, Thomas uses the organic, plant-based food subscription service ‘Aarsriderne’ and discussed their approach to ‘purpose’ with the CEO for his latest book: “They deliver a box with farm-fresh produce, but also comes with the recipe. I wanted to learn how to cook plant-based food. And when interviewing the CEO, he said, not something about a better world or ‘we're going to transform blah, blah, blah’, he talked about ‘earth connection’. This idea that I was on a journey of exploration and I had to discover the answers for myself.” He continues, explaining that the brand’s purpose should be to influence its customers to change their behaviour and make more sustainable choices, rather than to simply make claims about their own sustainability efforts, “If they can make me healthier, if they can help me on my journey towards plant-based living - that's the ultimate proof point. There's a change. Something happened.”

This is what Thomas distinguishes as “transformative difference” marketing, as opposed to ‘purposeful marketing’. This change, he says, has come partially from a shift in brand strategy during the era of purposeful marketing, “We used to build brands, where they talked about their products being the greatest in the world. Now the brands themselves talk about how great they are for the world.” He continues, “So the essential question here is, ‘who can you help people become?’ Think about that concrete change that you as a brand can enable? It's a much harder question. Because change comes with commitment.”

Thomas alludes to the fact that many brands may make sustainability promises on their own behalf because the results on the customer side of things are far less concrete and apparent than promising or helping customers to change their habits on a routine basis. He says, “If you told me ‘be good to the people and planet’ is your company’s little change mantra… we're building organisations who fundamentally can't really deliver on that. And maybe that's why they do it.”

According to a study Thomas conducted between four ‘purposeful’ and four ‘transformative’ brand campaigns - and despite the brands not talking about themselves nor their own goals and promises - the brands that used ‘transformative marketing’ were still viewed as competent and  motivated consumers 29.6% more than performative marketing approaches. Thomas describes these brands as the “coaches on the sideline” that make a “meaningful difference” in people’s lives

Take the ‘Respect Your Universe’ athletic apparel company as an example - a sportswear company with ‘experience centres’ that can be used for free by customers and non-customers alike for a variety of classes, seven days a week. He explains that the physical stores, therefore, have a secondary, meaningful purpose beyond selling clothes - one that builds a community around their products, which are also adapted to the customers’ needs. “If one of your goals was to lose weight, and you're successful, you can in fact go in and change those gym pants that you bought in the store. This is what happens when you have a singular focus on change and when you actually dare to ask the question, ‘Who can you  help people become?’.”

Summarising Thomas’ talk, what do brands need to look out for as we approach this ‘post-purpose’ industry? This Danish “post-purpose preacher” believes that brands need to understand how to bridge the gap between people who want to be more conscious about who they buy from and the 39% fewer people who actually do buy from more reputable brands, as well as understanding how they can motivate people to make that change. To do so, he suggests that successful brands will move away from simply creating a ‘green’ product and promising to use sustainable methods of production, and instead will focus on making a “transformative difference” in their customers’ behaviour. 

“I think if brands do this, they can, in fact, bridge this 39% gap. And hopefully, we'd started loving them again… I think we stopped loving brands because they're not playing a meaningful role in our lives.”



view more - The Sustainability Channel
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LBB Editorial, Wed, 18 May 2022 17:08:00 GMT