A Critique of “Purpose”

Maria Hengeveld‘s article in the Nation, Big Business Has a New Scam: The ‘Purpose Paradigm,’ raises a critical point:

“Contrary to its purported aim, the point of purpose isn’t to drive change. It’s to make sure any change stays within the tightly bound comfort zone of the world’s most powerful executives.”

If that is what purpose turns into, then, no doubt, it is the worst form of regressive Brand Activism. But we believe purpose is the first step.

UNILEVER and Paul Polman are not exempt from Hengeveld’s critique:

from: Big Business Has a New Scam: The ‘Purpose Paradigm’

Hengeveld is right. Purpose means nothing if it is simply another form of manipulation.  

So what is to be done?

In some ways, this is similar to the “greenwashing” tactic we saw at the beginning of the movement for business sustainability. Companies tried to co-opt the message through deceptive PR tactics. That won’t work anymore.

Companies who turn to purpose are more progressive than those that don’t profess to have any other purpose than making money.  Of course it’s a good step to search for and state your purpose and describe your company’s basic values to the public.  Making money is not enough. Purpose-driven companies must work hard to prove their purpose through their actions.

Purpose-driven strategy is a journey. Companies cannot be sure where this will lead.  Customers and employees may press them further than the corporation wants to go. 

In Unilever’s case, there are several questions to ask that are related to decision-making:

  1. Advertising: are we sending the right message? Unilever has had to drop a Dove ad which was viewed as racist.
  2. Products: are we selling the right product? Unilever sells both skin-whiteners and tanning products. Customers may want to to tan up or lighten up; that’s not inherently racist.
  3. Education: Do our messages help consumers make informed decisions? Unilever’s Real Beauty campaign was brilliant. Why destroy that legacy?

Purpose-driven businesseses know they must establish their legitimacy.

TATA‘s Tanishq ads offer a more progressive approach that companies would do well to learn from.

Patagonia also does “purpose” the right way – through its actions.

Society has bigger issues that need fixing. In our book – Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action – we raise this point: we will never be able to fix major challenges like climate change, social security, and student debt without first addressing our broken democracy. Capitalism must become a democratic, collaborative system that enjoys profits without harm to the future of society and the planet.

Until then, we are governed by the tyranny of regressive corporations:

Purpose, then, should not be dismissed, but encouraged. Let’s have more purpose-driven companies; the hypocrites will be exposed!