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Thomas Kolster responds to Rupen Desai's call for 'Saving Purpose'

02 December 2020

Purpose Doesn't Need More Saving Than a Self-important Saint

Advertising for good pioneer Thomas Kolster responds to
Rupen Desai's call for 'Saving Purpose'


Thomas Kolster is one of the most well known faces in the advertising for good space – coining the term Goodvertising. He’s a marketing activist on a mission to make business put people and planet first – and he’s the founder of The Goodvertising Agency.
I’ve been an advocate for purpose for more than 10 years and wrote a book about it, Goodvertising, when purpose was synonymous with the likes of Dove, Patagonia, Bodyshop and Chipotle. And the ad industry (and myself included) was reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why as a self-help book for brands. But I had to question my earlier held-beliefs as every brand in the shopping cart were suddenly pretending to be Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. In my new book I call it a “Hero Trap” (also the title of the book). When every shoe, soft drink or pack of raisins claims to be a knight in shining armour, people are no longer buying that burning “why”, but who you can help them become? In fact, I’ve witnessed how the more brands talk about their “do-good” efforts, the more skeptical people are becoming as shown by research from e.g. Deloitte and others.
Beware of the two-headed purpose monster!
You probably know the feeling of having lost your house keys. There you are searching in the bedroom, living room and the kitchen. Only to realise that you didn’t lose the keys inside the house, but outside. It’s the same thing with purpose. If you’re Carlsberg or Heineken or any other brewer, for that sake, you most likely have a rich heritage, an exciting founder’s story to tell, and you might have your “legendary” purpose. But if you want to repair the strained relationship with people you shouldn’t look inside the company, but outside; to the people who you aim to make a difference for. What brand has changed your life for the better? Taught you something new? Made you healthier? Sparked new thinking? Probably not many. My list was very short, which proves there is plenty of space for brands to play a meaningful role in our lives rather than simply shouting their “world-bettering” ambitions at us like a Pope on speed. Having a purpose, or being purposeful as a company, has become a shouting game or a commitment marathon. Much like Patagonia’s self-important and self-glorifying purpose, “We’re in the business to save our home planet” versus health insurance company Discovery’s transformative promise, “Incentivising people to live healthier”. Patagonia’s purpose can quickly turn into a two-headed purpose monster where one head is shouting purpose and the other is shouting profit. I’ve witnessed those monsters time and time again as most purpose statements end up being the lowest common denominator the whole board can agree on like a biblical “Do good for people and planet”. Rather than a north star guiding the corporate direction and catalysing future meaningful growth. When you ask, “WHO can you help people become?” you have a razor-sharp focus on change and Discovery has been successful at nudging people to live healthier. One study shows how their members exercise 4.8 times more per month than the average individual. Which is also good for business, as it spells up to 30% lower in hospitalisation costs. Their stringent focus has made Discovery one of the most innovative health insurance companies. “WHO” anchors your brands reason for existence in playing a difference in people’s lives. It's a shift from shouting “We believe in diversity” to instead getting people to fight their own prejudices and biases.
Be a coach, not a preacher
And let’s not confuse purpose with having ambitions on the sustainability agenda - that’s a must have. People want brands to help solve society’s challenges, as much as parents want kids to clean up their own mess. There is, in fact, an increasing tendency for young people to want to take matters into their own hands, because they don’t want to sit around and wait for archaic companies with outdated business models. A 2017 CSR Study from Cone Communication reveals that 45% of Millennials and Gen Zs believe individuals are most effective at solving today’s pressing social and environmental challenges. It’s the Greta Thunberg generation – and they don’t buy companies claims to be the heroes. They want to be the heroes in their own lives. People have a choice. Every brand can claim to have a big role to play in your life as their burning “why”. But if you can’t see or feel the outcome like becoming healthier, it’s simply another broken promise. It’s applaudable brands that are trying to clean up their mess or aiming for higher ethical standards. But we shouldn’t be afraid to hold them accountable, or have conversations about purpose, or even suggest a better way forward.