CSO Fight: Time to ditch or defend purpose marketing strategies?

Good purpose, bad purpose. BBH joint CSOs Will Lion and Simon Gregory battle it out and give brands three rules on effective purpose

By Will Lion and Simon Gregory

It's no surprise that brands are being extra cautious when it comes to entering social debates, given the recent high-profile debacles of marketers alienating core customers to pursue a younger, more activist audience. BBH joint CSOs Will Lion and Simon Gregory debate the purpose of purpose and conclude:

  • Purpose is great in business strategy, ok in marketing and poor in comms

  • When the above aren’t aligned it's a recipe for problems

They 'fight' it out on the purpose of purpose.


Will: We’re going to have to do it aren’t we?

Gregor: Yup. And I’m quite excited.

Will: Why? You don’t strike me as being very Purpose-y.

Gregor: Purpoisey? I have been told I look a bit like a dolphin…

Will: Yes, so smooth and hairless. Go on then, let’s chat Purpose. It felt like this year’s Cannes had weaned itself off Purpose Crack Pipe just a little. What’s your take?

Gregor: I’ve got a theory: the further away Purpose gets from a business the worse it is.

Will: What do you mean?

Gregor: Well, first off, I think we use the word for loads of the wrong stuff. For me, Purpose isn’t about wholesome ESG stuff (we should all be working away here), nor is it an act connected to a good cause. Purpose isn’t about doing good, it’s about using the brand to create direction and reason for being for a business.

Will: I smell a Tesco ‘helpfulness’ example coming in 3, 2, 1…it is a good one to be fair, go on.

Gregor: Ha. Well done. But you’re right. In their purpose of ‘Serving Shoppers a Little Better Every Day’ senior stakeholders both within and outside Tesco rallied around it. It directed every big call and reset the business around the customer. So when Purpose helps direct the business and the whole business buys into it, it can be great; creating change, driving innovation, improving employee relationships, increasing customer satisfaction, etc. I can  give a real sense of purp-, direction.

Will: So I’m getting the weird feeling you’re pro purpose then? Are you ok?

Gregor: At a high business level, yes. When it drops down a notch and becomes just a Marketing thing, that’s when it gets a bit woolly. It becomes a silo: less connected to the business and often sits in the Brand Strategy Broom Cupboard, used only in theoretical conversations and workshops to make everyone feel a bit better about what they’re doing.

Will: So your issue with Purpose at a Marketing level is that it's a showy distraction to what the rest of the business is doing like someone doing jazz hands on an aircraft carrier.

Gregor: Yeah, it loses its teeth. We need to be turning the aircraft carrier by being on the bridge. And when you get further down the chain and Purpose just lives in Comms, that’s when it gets really icky.

Will: Like Kendall Jenner and Pepsi?

Gregor: That was just daft all round. Fizzy drinks can’t fix a hangover let alone a protest. But yes, when comms show a brand standing up for something completely disconnected from the business and what makes it tick.

Will: It reminds me of the brilliant Left Handed Mango Chutney where Purpose is just pointed at impressing judges and has little influence on the real world.

Gregor: Haha. Exactly. It might win awards but customers smell the BS and disconnection from the brand. It just doesn’t wash.

Will: This feels especially true when Purpose becomes heavily activist, pulling a fast one with a Pride ad here, plopping a defiant girl statue there, gushing over a token eco activation and then the day after business chugs on like nothing happened.

Gregor: Unless Cannes is your audience target…

Will: So, Purpose at Business level is good. Purpose at Marketing level is meh. ‘Purpose’ just in Comms is bad?

Gregor: Exactly. And if none of those line up, that’s the biggest crime of all.

Will: So really it should be Business Purpose rather than Brand Purpose?

Gregor: YES! Nice. Even Spike Lee says that our “number-one aim is you've got to sell shit.”

Will: Excessive enthusiasm isn’t you Greg, calm down. I guess my beef is that social purpose has become the default answer, nudging non-purposeful but arguably better strategies out the way, driven by the admirable desire to do good and less admirable one to stand out in a judging room down the line. Are you saying every brand should be purposeful?

Gregor: I’ve got three rules I try to use. Firstly, Purpose isn’t everything; it’s just another tool. If it doesn't work for your business, that’s fine. Secondly, it has to be at a Business level. If it’s not, it becomes impotent and less authentic. Thirdly, if you're debating it and it all smells a bit off, it probably is off. Call it early before it spirals into Left Handed Mango Chutney.

Will: Ok, see you next week.

Gregor: I’ve got an aircraft carrier to do some jazz hands on.

Greg and Will, if they ever find their Purpose, will return next month for a fight about creating a kind high performance culture.


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