The other day I got an invite to a planning conference titled “Does brand purpose have a point?” The question being whether all this talk about purpose is turning brands into sanctimonious bores. “Are we all getting just a bit too worthy?” the brochure asks. “Have we lost our sense of humour in favour of stocking up on nebulous moral goodie points and severed our connection with people as result?”

This is not the only pushback on purpose we’ve seen lately. Saturday Night Live spoofed purpose marketing with a sketch about feckless Cheetos executives rejecting product messages to grasp at grand social causes. Pepsi has been universally lambasted for trying to monetize social justice with its Kendall Jenner ad. Even purpose poster child Dove has faltered of late, causing critics to wonder how it lost sight of its purpose in favor of marketing stunts.

Even Saturday Night Live is pushing back on purpose.


Researcher Emma Worrollo summarizes the purpose malaise this way: “People have become over exposed to brands wading in too deeply on social and political issues, often clumsily trying to solve problems by adopting causes and campaigns that they’ve never been near before.”

What’s gone wrong here? How did the noble idea of purpose, which traces its origins to Aristotle, find itself on the way to the landfill of discarded marketing trends?

Maybe it’s because we’re looking for purpose in all the wrong places. Brands don’t have purpose. Companies have purpose.

Purpose needs people. It was never meant to be a marketing concept. It was meant to guide human effort and intention. Purpose gives us the reason why something is done or why it exists. It’s meant to unite people working together toward a common goal.

This explains why great brands tend to come from great companies. The power of purpose is in the culture of the company that stands behind a brand. Like it or not, in this era of transparency, your brand is tied to your values. “A company’s culture and brand are really just two sides of the same coin,” notes Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. “The brand is just a lagging indicator of the culture.”

Want to build a brand that people care about? Stop looking at your brand, and start looking at your company. Find what’s true about why your company exists, and put language around it. Then find a need in the world that you are uniquely suited to solve through your business model, and connect to people around that. Begin with your employees and partners. Engage the rest of us once you’ve made it real. Don’t look for credit; we’ll notice. Repeat every year.