Douglas Holt: We are in the midst of a full-blown purpose frenzy

Douglas Holt CEO and founder of the Cultural Strategy Group
Purpose has led all of the big companies to copy each other with the same predictable policies which cannot possibly cut through and generate consumer interest, much less build the next generation of sustainable brands.

Douglas Holt was marketing professor at Harvard Business School and Oxford University. Now as CEO and founder of the Cultural Strategy Group, he helps clients like Cadillac, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s to build their brands. He wrote the marcom bestseller, How Brands Become Icons. 

By: Gijs de Swarte (C) Best World Publicity

Green, greener, greenest seems to be the marketing communication credo these days. Not to mention ‘inclusive’, ‘transparent’ and in general, ‘social’. 

‘Yes we are in the midst of a full-blown purpose frenzy. Advertisers and brands are scrambling to become purpose-driven. A purpose industry has bloomed with purpose conferences, purpose consultants, purpose podcasts and board meetings devoted to debating purpose. Yet, try to distinguish today’s “purpose” from yesterday’s “corporate social responsibility.” It’s hard!’

There is nothing new there according to you?

‘What’s different today is that CEOs are now convinced that they can build successful brands and help save the planet by committing to this purpose model. They want to believe the likes of Paul Polman (former Unilever CEO), who will tell them that all they need to do is find their “purpose” and follow it with integrity and all will be good. All this on the basis of a stream of reports from the big consultancies and agencies which declare that consumers favor brands that are contributing to society and planet and, therefore they must embrace the purpose model, the only game in town. It’s not.’

What is the purpose model?

‘Advertisers and brands start by asking “why are we in business?” which results in a statement that captures the company’s purpose at the highest level: Unilever: Make sustainable living commonplace. Kellogg’s: Nourish families so they can flourish and thrive. Coca-Cola: Refresh the world and make a difference. Then they aim to drive their purpose to inform policies and actions across the company. Many companies have signature initiatives that showcase their purpose, but they are cautious in seeking publicity, since they believe that too much chest-thumping will destroy the authenticity of their efforts. Companies hope that if they make a credible commitment to their purpose and follow through rigorously, consumers will give them credit and the market will reward them, building their brand.’

Sounds like a healthy and helpful development…

‘Purpose has led all of the big companies to copy each other with the same predictable policies which cannot possibly cut through and generate consumer interest, much less build the next generation of sustainable brands. While purpose trades in the language of radical transformation, the implementation is always incremental. Incrementalism will not save the planet.’

What should advertisers do instead?

‘If we are to save the planet they must become sustainability entrepreneurs; radically innovating to take on the massive environmental problems that are embedded in all major markets. Companies must play a leadership role in blowing up business-as-usual, taking on competitors who are fine with purpose incrementalism. This is not wishful thinking. Rather, it’s the strategy model used by the most successful social enterprises like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, to build powerful sustainable brands. Most big companies are newbies; they have no idea how to build sustainability into brands, so this is a new muscle. I develop how this approach to sustainable branding works in my forthcoming book, How Brands Innovate.’

So, this purpose trend is just a phase in your view…

‘My hope is that the purpose frenzy will be dead in a few years and we can get on with the serious business of fixing capitalism. The advertisers and agencies that actually take on these challenges will become the iconic brands of this crisis age.’

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