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The branding of shared purpose

There is no doubt about the social progress made by the popularisation of the concept of brand purpose. It was the overcoming (at last!) of the amoral approach of economist Milton Friedman who, in an influential 1970 New York Times op-ed, declared that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business: to use its resources to increase its profits”.

From this global economic policy lacking in ethical values and driven by insatiable greed came an obscene increase in inequality, exploitation, job losses, loss of cultural diversity, erosion of national sovereignty, and environmental degradation to the extent that it has led to today’s climate emergency.

It may surprise you to learn that the purpose is nothing new and the context in which it was born. According to Branding Strategy Insider it was Nelson Rockefeller during the Great Depression who argued at a board meeting of Standard Oil, which owned over 90% of the oil in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, that “the company should use its assets to reflect the best interests of the people”.

While Friedman’s thesis was the prevailing view for decades, in recent years companies have increasingly begun to question why they exist, beyond making money. People are concerned about the inertia and inaction of governments and institutions that are leading us to a fatal fate and are actively looking to brands for answers to the serious social and environmental challenges we face. The search for “brands with a social purpose” on Google increased 133% between December 2020 and December 2022.

Edelman’s 2023 Barometer, Navigating a Polarised World, confirms this. “Lack of faith in social institutions, triggered by economic anxiety, misinformation, class division and lack of leadership, has led us to the current situation: deep and dangerous polarisation.” “The only institution that is seen as ethical and competent is business.” It is a moral obligation to live up to expectations.

The proliferation of courses in elite business schools (the same ones that taught shareholder capitalism) on the social obligations of business demonstrates that “purpose” is now mainstream. From being a challenging idea that challenged capitalism, it has become part of 21st-century business-as-usual. All major companies now articulate a commitment to social and/or environmental values. In addition, younger people (but not only) are actively seeking employment in companies with social values.

As in many other occasions, capitalism swallows up any rebelliousness and turns it into a scarce and competitive commodity. If brands traditionally competed on price and quality, they now increasingly compete on purpose.

A Deloitte study shows that purpose understood holistically achieves a new kind of growth that is more equitable and inclusive of all stakeholders. And while this is certainly a step forward, like the significant growth in ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investment, this narrative does not solve the “wicked problems” because it does not take into account the complexity and interdependence of today’s mega-challenges.

Purpose is too important to become a concept that quickly goes out of fashion. It belongs to the new world, the one that struggles to be born. We cannot pollute it with growthist concepts of the system we need to change, such as saying that “the profitability of purpose is declining” or treating it as something ephemeral and circumstantial.

We have to liberate it from old frameworks that no longer serve us. Jon Alexander in his highly recommended book “Citizens” alerts us that the problem that affects all brands is this central falsehood that choosing from a menu of options gives power and that these are the limits of our capacity as individuals while the challenges we face are fundamentally collective. As citizens we have to propose, step up and act. Create a new, clear, and compelling story born from listening to our wounds and sharing our pain, inhabiting the turmoil of being alive.

Ece Temelkuran, in Together, argues that we suffer the same pain and turmoil that women in childbirth do.  This new world, she says, needs a heart because we have stopped believing in facts. We need to join all the planet’s protests to reverse the dangerous tide of history. Now is the time for the new, the beautiful, and the human.

The shift from profit to purpose as the primary focus of corporate decision-making is an important part of the change. Companies need to become platforms for purposeful action in the world.

There are already brands like Buy Me Once determined to break the cycle of planned obsolescence. Or Tortoise, which does slow journalism opening up editorial boards to their community, looking for ideas on what to report and how. Or the cooperative supermarkets that require their members to contribute a few hours a month to keep prices low. The customers are the community itself. Let’s hope that the cooperative model expands massively. Mondragon with its 80,000 workers is still a model of democratic cooperative organisation.

Cooperative models are emerging from every giant, for eBay, Fairmondo, a marketplace of its users; for Airbnb, Fairbnb. Can you imagine how consulting would change if the big four were owned by all their consultants? Or if Amazon or Tesla were cooperatives?

What if beyond cooperative models, purpose was always shared? What if we finally applied systems thinking to branding and created brands that saw themselves as part of an interconnected system? If the challenges we face affect us collectively, purpose has to be shared, it has to be at the centre and the brands committing to it have to revolve around it. In this way, we would finally move beyond the competitive logic of the old world to the radical collaboration we now need to overcome the polycrisis in which we are immersed.

Shall we get down to work? 😊