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Purposely Conflicted

The Association of National Advertisers held its 100-year anniversary convention recently, and the headline in Advertising Age caught my attention. It said:

Purpose-Driven Marketing All the Rage at ANA

Over the past few years, as the concept of brand purpose has gained currency among high-profile marketers, I’ve noticed that Ad Age has seemed a bit conflicted about the whole idea. To my ear, the phrase “all the rage” contains a subtle dig, suggesting that purpose is a passing fad among starry-eyed marketing types. Of course, even if my suspicion is correct, Ad Age couldn’t say that directly because those starry-eyed marketing types are its most important audience.

If there is a disconnect, I think it arises out of a chicken-or-egg debate about the purpose of commercial enterprises in general. There are those who argue that the ultimate purpose of any business (especially a publicly-owned corporation) is to make money for its owners. And there are those who point out–inconveniently–that businesses that seem to have a purpose over and above making money for their owners are often more effective at making money for their owners.

As with most of life’s intractable puzzles, the only really useful way forward is to embrace the conflict. The conflict between money and purpose is a slightly narrower articulation of the conflict between the struggle to survive and the search for meaning. (See Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, about his experience surviving the concentration camps.) If your personal story is all about the struggle to make money for its own sake then life will eventually feel empty and bland. On the other hand, for most of us the search for meaning has to take place within the real world as we find it. As Jack Kornfield put it, in the title of his book about the search for spiritual fulfillment, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

To be as hard-nosed and pragmatic as possible, the purpose of purpose is threefold:

First: A clear sense of the meaning and purpose of the enterprise–a story framework–provides an organizing principle for everything a company chooses to do. That clarity of purpose will quickly reveal what is “in character” for an organization and what is not. That’s why story is such a powerful tool for analyzing brands and shaping strategy.

Second: The authentic purpose behind a business is the best motivator for everyone who works there. As a senior marketer at a global food company once told me, “I would hate to think that I get up every morning for no other reason than to increase shareholder value for the owners of (fill in your favorite public corporation here).”

Third: A credible sense of purpose gives your customers an important reason to believe that you might be better at what you do than a competitor who is doing it just for the money. To its loyal fans, for example, Apple appears to be driven by an intense desire to make machines that seem to think like real people. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be driven largely by a need for power and control, which is a variation of the money story.

At the end of the day, a story is powerful if you believe it. A company that exists only to make money will inexorably drift toward commodity status. But if you and your colleagues all believe that you are making money in order to advance your efforts toward some more inspiring purpose, then you will be more effective, your customers will be pulling for you to succeed and, ironically, you will probably make more money.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

I whole-heartedly recommend Character to any brand marketer who is looking to make intuitive and durable connections with their consumer.”

Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company