I read the Ad Age interview with Bob McDonald, Procter & Gamble’s new CEO, with great interest. Two things jumped out at me–in fact, they were the first two things he said. He started by referencing his military experience as an airborne infantry ranger trained in desert and jungle warfare. And then he launched into an impassioned discussion of P&G’s purpose, describing it as incredibly important but underexploited. This caught my attention because, in the world of marketing, the metaphor of war and the idea of purpose frequently seem to be at odds.
You may be familiar with the metaphors of marketing–War, Science and Story–which we discuss at Character Camp (if not, there is a one-page primer on the subject here). At Camp we teach that the war metaphor is the toolset marketers use to operate in a competitive landscape. Story, on the other hand, is the set of tools best suited to building a relationship between the brand and its customers. Brands frequently act as if war and story are in conflict–as if you are either fighting for share or building equity, but not doing both at the same time. At a deeper level, however, I believe there is great synergy between war and story, and the connecting link is brand purpose.
Purpose, framed as the objective of the protagonist, is what drives a story forward. Winning is often presented as the goal that drives a soldier forward. But what Bob McDonald’s interview reminded me is that in an actual war there is always an idea that is supposed to give meaning to the struggle and inspire the soldier to win. Without such a purpose, a warrior can become little more than a mercenary–motivated only by personal gain.
To underscore his point about purpose in business, Mr. McDonald cited his conversations with students at Harvard Business School who were looking for professions that would provide meaning for their lives. Interestingly, one of the first comments posted on the Ad Age website was openly cynical, assuring Mr. McDonald that, among Ad Age readership, it is not necessary to “frame CPG as an altruistic calling.” The comment concludes, “Does the world need more new Swiffers, more new Febreezes? No, of course not. Like you and 50 Cent, we just wanna ‘get rich or die trying.'”
I disagree. I not only support the Harvard MBA candidates in their search for a meaningful job, I think the evidence is pretty clear that they are more likely to be successful–both emotionally and materially–if their efforts are driven by a purpose that goes beyond just making money. This is particularly true in consumer products, because your customer can tell if you have a real interest in what you are doing that goes beyond the transaction. That sense of purpose gives your customer a reason to believe that you will be better at your business than a competitor who is just in it for the money.
It is interesting to me that the current thinking about counter-insurgency warfare is focused less on projecting power for its own sake–on killing large numbers of enemy soldiers, for example–and more on creating and securing the conditions in which the marketplace, along with the other aspects of civil society, can function. Even in war success ultimately depends on having a purpose that goes beyond winning for its own sake.
In other words, purpose is what distinguishes the warrior from the mercenary. And in the world of story, the mercenary never wins unless, like Han Solo, he turns out to have the heart of a warrior after all.
May the Force be with you,