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Defining purpose in a polarizing world

Eldon D’Cruz

Planning Director



What’s the point?

Defining purpose in a polarizing world

In a world where every thought and opinion find yays and nays on social media, where left and right narratives are polarizing daily conversations, brands have never had a greater opportunity to be meaningful … nor faced a greater risk of being ridiculed or even hated. Remember the praise Heineken won for its “Conversations” story, and the derision heaped on Pepsi for its Jenner ad? Whether those reactions were justified or not, for us marketers the challenge is clear: Before we fly the flag of “purpose” high, we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of building a brand purpose?

Popular trends or movements are NOT purpose.    

Social media is alive with bold causes and sometimes it’s easy to believe that these really matter to consumers. Often, brands try to ride current trends and, with a few successes under their belts, can convince themselves that tactical success can be laddered up to a higher purpose.

Yet recent Kantar research has found that “what people talk about the most” is rarely the same as “what they value the most” and marketers need to be aware of this difference.

Acts, not ads

In a time where many still count “likes”, fans and engagement rates as a measure of consumer love and relevance, taking up a purpose can be a scary move. Nike has taken that risk – showing support for a controversial US athlete – and has been largely rewarded with public praise. In Indonesia, Kecap ABC’s “Real Husbands Cook” campaign has taken a provocative position on manliness, the kitchen and cooking, thus endearing itself to modern Indonesian women.

Brands that are successful realize that ads simply aren’t enough. The consumer is smart enough to know when a brand is sincere and when it’s just empty talk. Kecap ABC’s campaign was supported by the launch of the “Real Husbands Cooking Academy”, where over 2,500 husbands have been trained to cook simple dishes and be a partner in the kitchen. An act that shows the brand is sincere.


For every success story like these, however, there are many brands that face a backlash, or that don't take a stand for fear of provoking one. Success or failure boils down to how authentic or act-driven is the purpose. When it’s authentic, you can wield even hate or anger as a powerful tool to garner support; when it’s not, brands often resort to caving in and apologizing.  

Sometimes, simply doing our best to serve the customer is purposeful enough. Amazon does this beautifully. Their customer service is their act. And millions of small but meaningful acts by Amazon has helped the brand grow into one of the most powerful and valuable brands in the world.

Begin with your centre of gravity

Purpose can’t be dreamt up in a boardroom, nor simply discovered through research. It must be an inside-out process. It can be brand-led – as in a vision, a founding truth, a way of doing things just like The Body Shop; or it can be product-led, like “superior safety designs” from Volvo. Whichever way you arrive at your purpose, it must be lived on a daily basis. And lived by all, from the CEO all the way down.

A beautiful example of living a purpose was NASA in the 1960s, where even the janitor would tell people he was working to put an American on the moon.

Authenticity should be your North Star.

Purpose can produce profit; it can also produce pain. Sometimes it produces both. How then are custodians expected to make the right decisions for their brand?

The answer once again lies in authenticity. Can you credibly fulfil your promise? As custodians, do you truly believe in the purpose or does it just sound cool? Which aspect of your product tangibly brings out the purpose? And, most importantly, what is the business impact you should be aiming for with this purpose? There is no point to a purpose that doesn’t grow the brand or the business.

In a polarized world, consumers are intolerant of empty promises. Ramadan is a superb litmus test for purpose. Does your brand’s beautiful story or gesture come from a genuine purpose, or does it make space for your purpose? The former will have a visible impact on both brand and business; the latter might be talked about and remembered, but it won’t win genuine love.