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Purpose is more important and divisive than ever: B2B brands must face up to it


Purpose is a divisive concept, a ‘hot potato’ for all brands – should organisations let it define everything they do, or is it something that crumbles when scrutinised?

Matt Hicks, Head of Strategy and Content at Lesniak Swann, argues that B2B brands still need to practise transparency and responsibility, while still focusing on what they do best.


Brand purpose is a hot topic. Whether you’re a yoghurt maker or professional services firm, defining how your business does right by the world has been one of the major marketing trends in recent years.

Perhaps fueled by the noughties’ cynicism of brands – see the likes of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me or Naomi Klein’s No Logo – and the prospect of climate change looming ever-larger, businesses have sought to become more actively, and prominently, involved in big environmental and social issues.

The logic is that behaving in this virtuous way will mean a stronger bond with customers.

After all, a recent Meaningful Brands Report by Havas found that 55% of people believe companies have a more important role to play than governments in creating a better future.

But – in the marketing world at least – purpose is proving an extremely divisive concept.

For its proponents, it represents a new way for businesses to behave ethically and for the greater good of society. They argue that major marketing industry awards such as the Cannes Lions are rightly putting greater focus on work that prioritises purpose.

Sceptics, however, reckon it’s nothing more than a corporate fig leaf, not only failing to address the apparent problems in how business operates but also distracting from the perfectly legitimate skill of, well, just selling stuff.

In the B2C world, this position was writ large by Terry Smith, a major shareholder in Unilever, who accused the company of being “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”

Smith felt that Unilever would be better served keeping it simple when selling the likes of mayonnaise rather than unnecessarily aggrandising it with brand purpose.

So why the polarisation, and where does that leave B2B marketers?

What is a business anyway?

Underpinning the rationale of brand purpose is the very notion of what a business is. While taking responsibilities like environmental or social impact seriously is nothing new, it’s only in more recent times that this has been crystallised as a central purpose of many brands.

So instead of the bolt-on Corporate Social Responsibility or Sustainability departments of old, brands now seek to put this responsibility front and centre; their ultimate reason for being is not to make profit, but to do good in the world.

A prominent B2B example is Deloitte’s purpose to “make an impact that matters”. This doesn’t guide a few staff seconded to the basement Sustainability department, but informs everything that Deloitte does.

However critics have argued that, while there’s undoubted good in this approach, there’s a fundamental conflict at play. Nick Asbury points out in a blog on the subject that we’ve had a phrase for organisations with a true purpose for years – they’re called not-for-profits. Which then raises the question: If an organisation isn’t already operating on a not-for-profit basis, can it ever truly be committed to an ethical purpose?

There’s then the question of whether a business must have a “true” purpose in order to be useful to society. Is providing jobs for people and supporting supply chains to do the same not enough in and of itself?

Some argue that we shouldn’t downplay this value generated by businesses. There is no need to overlay brand purpose for an organisation to be seen as worthwhile. They also contest whether the greater responsibility for improving the world should rest with for-profit businesses, who they argue will always have a conflict of interest, or whether this should remain the preserve of politicians, activists and not-for-profits.

Where next?

The result is that the concept of purpose is becoming a loaded term – continuing to accrue negative baggage and distract from the original objective. A case in point is that a recent Marketoonist sketch placed ‘brand purpose statements’ well into the red danger zone of the Marketing BS Detector.

Perhaps brands will move away from purpose if this continues, but it’s worth bearing in mind that business does not need an ingrained, high-level purpose to operate beyond just a pure profit motive.

The idea that a business should have other obligations in this regard is not a new one – the likes of Cadbury’s were practising what they preached over a century ago.

The key is to undertake those obligations with honesty – practice responsibility and transparency in what you do. Perhaps that means pursuing a pure brand purpose that guides every fibre of the organisation, but only if that aligns fully with what your business does to generate profit.

In many cases this is simply not going to be possible, and it’s typically that disconnect between what amounts to a neat, fashionable purpose-led brand promise, and a different corporate reality that creates the problems. Green-washing, woke-washing, purpose-washing and so on – these all arise from businesses who’ve overreached their responsibilities and actions. The pretence doesn’t tend to last long.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that brand purpose and corporate responsibility values aren’t synonymous. The former may work for some organisations, but should be treated with caution in whether the position they take can be truthfully shown in everything they do, not only what they say.

But that isn’t to say those for whom this isn’t the right fit cannot or should not act responsibly to all their stakeholders. There doesn’t need to be a grand purpose beyond simply being excellent to each other.

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