Brands built on purpose: Is purpose-driven marketing always a plus?

By Woven Agency, Wednesday July 13, 2022

Purpose-driven marketing. Purpose-driven brands. Purpose-driven products. These days, it seems the industry is powered by purpose. Which is hardly a surprise, with poll after poll suggesting customers want to buy from brands that are more socially responsible. 

But should all brands make purpose a central part of their marketing strategy? Sure, it’s logical for companies that make essential products to prove their ethical credentials. And it’s logical for luxury brands who can use sustainability as a way to genuinely improve working conditions and the industry’s environmental impact.

But is it logical for — let’s say — mayonnaise to sell with purpose?

Can I have some purpose with my side-salad?

In 2021, Unilever’s chief executive announced the purpose of its sub-brand Hellmann’s Mayonnaise was to ‘fight food waste’. 

But as this Financial Times article points out, Hellmann’s adoption of purpose as a positioning tool is a risky strategy. Why? Because as cynical consumers, we all know its real purpose is to sell more mayonnaise — and any attempt to suggest otherwise is likely to be seen as greenwashing rather than goodheartedness.

The point is, Hellmann’s is a condiment people put on their salad, not a product people think can save the world. What’s more, they sell tens of millions of jars and plastic bottles of it every year, so they’re hardly contributing to our ecological future.

All of which means Hellmann’s can’t legitimately put purpose at the heart of what they do. And that’s okay, because not every brand can — and nor should they try to.

Not every brand can save the world. And not every brand should try to.

The trick is in knowing whether a brand has the permission to be purposeful — i.e., will its customers react positively to promotional activity around purpose, or will customers roll their eyes, see through the gimmick, and look for an alternative instead? As Gillette taught us, when a brand tries to do right in the wrong way, things can go very south very quickly.

One of Unilever’s key stockholders, Terry Smith, aired his doubts when he said of the mayonnaise brand’s purpose-led strategy: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s has in our view clearly lost the plot.” He went on to say: “[our leadership team is] obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”

What Smith is saying here is something we all know: mayonnaise can’t save the world, so Hellmann’s would be better off leaving that particular task to others and focusing on what it does best. 

And anyway, what’s wrong with a brand purpose of ‘Making salad taste better than salad’?

The ultimate purpose test

Being a purpose-led brand is simple yet difficult, because doing the right thing — i.e., paying staff a decent, livable wage — often runs counter to the whole point of a business — to make money. In other words, purpose contradicts profit.

Take the most basic purposeful thing a company can do, pay its fair share of taxes. You can’t be a purpose-driven business if you’re not doing the most fundamental act of sustainability there is: reinvesting back into society through taxation.

Yet applying this simple test exposes the fallacy of some of the world’s biggest purpose proponents — and renders the statements of its brand guardians not just redundant but hypocritical. 

Starbucks, for example, is big on purpose. Their creative director of the Starbucks Global Creative Studio said: “[Starbucks is] about a lot more than coffee. It’s about… being good to people, being good to the world… I think it’s about being good citizens of the planet and taking care of each other in that way.”

Which is all well and wonderful. But in 2021, Starbucks’ UK division paid just £5.4m corporation tax on a gross profit of £95m — following on from a long history of paying as little tax as possible. At which point, exclamations of ‘being good citizens of the planet’ seem somewhat hollow.

The positive impact of purpose-driven marketing

The message many of the world’s biggest brands are putting out there is that purpose is something to be seen, not felt

As Bill Bernbach once said, it’s not a principle unless it costs you money. Whether that’s through social investment schemes, product improvement costs or just paying taxes, if you’re not putting your hands in your pockets, you’re probably not purpose-driven.

It’s not a principle unless it costs you money.

But what if you actually are a purpose-fuelled brand, and not just pretending to be? Well, good news, you get to talk loud and proud about the impact you’re making— and you’ll be doing that talking to a very receptive audience. 

As an independent SmartestEnergy study showed, 81% of us would rather buy from sustainable sellers. The same study revealed that 90% of people agree that society has to become more energy-conscious. It seems we care about where our products come from, how they’re made, and the long-term impact they’ll have. 

(We do have to be careful about such polls, however. Remember, there’s often a big reality gap between what we say and how we actually behave.)

Do it well — and do it authentically — and the power of purpose is an important tool in your marketing mix.

Patagonia: built on purpose

Patagonia is one of the world’s most effective purpose-driven brands, achieving market-leading dominance on a sustainability ticket that runs right through the company. 

Its mission is ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’; it encourages second-hand usage through its Worn Wear brand; it’s donated over $140m to environmental causes; over two-thirds of its clothes are made with recycled material; and it promotes environmentalism powerfully through its advertising:

For Patagonia, purpose isn’t a way to launder its reputation or to jump on the latest brandwagon; it’s integral to its success. 

More importantly, as a clothing manufacturer, Patagonia makes an essential product, which means it has the responsibility — and the opportunity — to do things in a better way. This is a competitive advantage, and the brand has grasped it with both hands, helping people shop more ethically and boosting its bottom line in the process.

The permission of purpose

Patagonia and Hellmann’s occupy opposite ends of the purpose spectrum. One makes an essential product that we all need in a way that’s making a positive impact on the planet. And the other is a mayonnaise

Like our client HBI Sustains, Patagonia has the permission to put purpose at their core because their target audience understands the need for it — and will appreciate it. They’ll welcome the opportunity to buy clothing and support a brand that does more to help the world we all have to share.

Hellmann’s, as a mayonnaise brand, doesn’t have that permission. Its target audience doesn’t want to save the world, it wants something to put on their chips.

Which isn’t to say Hellmann’s shouldn’t push purpose-led programmes; but, as its own shareholders have intimated, the brand needs to be careful how far it promotes its ethical messaging.

For a brand like Hellmann’s, instead of basking in the glory of a mayonnaise brand saving the world, its consumers are just as likely to breathe a heavy, eye-rolling sigh — and reach for the salad cream.

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