Marketer’s Obsession with Purpose could Lead to their Demise.

39 months is the average tenure of a CMO working at one of the top 100 advertisers in America. Just over 3 years and declining. How absurd. This is emblematic of a larger issue in corporate culture. Marketing’s perceived value continues to take a beating and it’s no wonder that this has coincided with the rise of purpose-led mania. In 2009, Simon Sinek released the book ‘Start with Why’. His theory, is that consumers engage with brands that stand for something above and beyond physical attributes. And that they must have a purpose beyond features and benefits. A larger reason for being. The ‘why’ that gets employees out of bed in the morning and the higher order purpose of the brand or company. He argues that without a purpose you are selling a commodity. Essentially arguing that without a purpose, you don’t have a brand.

The argument is compelling. So much so that the rise of purpose-led marketing has become an obsession for brands and marketers. Newfangled agencies were born espousing the virtues of ‘purpose’. Do a quick search on ‘purpose-led agency’ and see what pops up. Marketers have changed their LinkedIn bios to “Purpose-Led Marketer”. Even Blackjet adapted its planning model around Sinek’s golden circles. Coincidentally, the idea of “authenticity” was on the lips of every marketer around the world. “Our consumers are demanding authenticity!”….”Our brand needs to be more authentic.” And this, became a dangerously toxic combination.

Surely employees need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. And generating more revenue or gaining market share may not be motivating to them. It’s true that many consumer segments genuinely care about a company’s impact on people and planet. But that’s NOT every consumer. Potato chips saving the rain forest? Blue-collar beer brands claiming to be advocates of the LGBTQ2A+ community? Soda trying to stop police brutality?

Many marketers have become so obsessed with purpose that they’ve lost the plot. No wonder the average CMO’s tenure is so short. No wonder marketing doesn’t get a seat at the “adult table” in many organizations. And no wonder agencies are looked at as vendors and not partners. So many marketers have taken their eyes of off business objectives and accountability to the bottom line. They’ve stopped asking for business KPIs and placing those above purpose.

If you are going to be one of the successful purpose-led brands, it needs to come from the top. It needs to be baked into your DNA. Just ask Patagonia. It can’t just be a marketing led initiative. That’s inauthentic. And that’s where most brands fail. To be clear, purpose can have a powerful role. But it shouldn’t usurp business goals. It can’t. It won’t work. Too many marketers are trying to hang their brand on a ‘purpose’ and it has become ignorable, inauthentic noise. There’s no better case study than the recent Bud Light misstep that’s cost Annheuser-Busch billions in lost revenue and market share.

Unilever, as an example, is one of the pioneers in purpose led marketing. Their CEO Hein Schumacher, who controls approximately $10Bn in marketing spend annually, recently reported to its shareholders that the company will no longer “force fit” purpose into every brand and that their strategy will focus on faster growth after underperforming in recent times.

Blackjet is no longer force-fitting purpose into our strategic process. There is a counter movement emerging. One that prioritizes performance over purpose and one that will more directly connect marketing strategy to business objectives. And as the world heads deeper into a recession and global unrest a more pragmatic approach will be required. It doesn’t mean a brand shouldn’t stand for something. But business performance has to come first. If you’re not driving business results, you won’t have a business (or purpose) to get you out of bed in the morning.