The article that follows first appeared on the Australian media and marketing website Mumbrella on October 30th. This is the slightly longer version of the published piece.
I received a number of complaints about the title of the post.
For the benefit of younger readers it is a reference to a particular Jamie Reid poster (of the same title) from punk times circa 1976 or something. Some of my best friends are hippies.
It was Mark Earls who coined the term ‘purpose-idea’ back in 2002 or something in his book ‘…Creative Age’.
His premise being that the word ‘brand’ had become – what he called – a ‘fat-metaphor’. A word that could be used it to mean just about anything we want it to.
Purpose-Idea was a proposed replacement for ‘brand’ – as defined as the ‘what for?’ of a business.
The Google purpose idea, for example, was 'to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful'.
A simple description of how the brand fits into people’s lives.
Not the ‘ethics and values’ place that it’s ended up (for many so-called cultural or conscious capitalism examples).
And, if anything, ‘purpose’ now feels even more esoteric than the b-word was in the first place.
However, there’s no shortage of reporting that claims a cause-and-effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance.
But is this really proof that the most successful brands are built on an ideal of improving lives?
Or is brand purpose simply a positional response that resolves a particular cognitive dissonance and puts a do-gooder spin on normal consumption habits for old (and new) hippies?
And another example of the delusion of the wrong end of the stick. Getting causes the wrong way round.
The standard rhetoric of the ‘brand with purpose’ goes something along these lines.
It’s much harder to run a mission-driven company than it is to run one that is simply devoted to making a profit.
This is possibly why there was a sense of disappointment from Benjamin Harrison in his article in Mumbrella (to which this article was a response) , in which he lamented the inability of many companies who adopt a purpose-driven position to actually deliver on that promise.
But should we really expect the purpose driven brand to be authentic in this way? It’s pretty hard after all.
In their book ‘The Rebel Sell’ Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter note that "…whenever you look at the list of consumer goods that [according to critics of capitalism] people don't really need, what you invariably see is a list of consumer goods that middle-aged intellectuals don't need ... Hollywood movies bad, performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers bad, risotto good."
It could even be that the much-deified new generation of ‘millennials’ – the bullshit proof authenticity-seeking information generation defined both by their strongly held values and their strong intention to live by them – is another invention of these same middle-aged intellectuals, are now looking to temper the disappointment they feel over their own generations counter-culture failure.
The list of usual suspect purpose driven brands, as indicated by the Stengel 50, seems to play out to that point.
Starbucks, Apple, Google, Innocent, to name but a few.
And, of course, Chipotle.
There is no small irony in how Chipotle appear to expect farmers to produce food for the world using technologies from the early 1900s, yet seem very comfortable using every trick and tech from the 2014 marketing book to promote that point of view.
Of course, every new pseudo anti-establishment approach business that declares itself as some sort of alternative to the mainstream - more artisanal, authentic or purpose-driven – is simply a response to demand from the mass market looking for things to consume that signal their alternative status to others.
My favourite description of anti-consumerism is the one that calls it as ‘the criticism of what other people buy’.
But the truth is that the market is just as good at meeting consumer demand for anti-consumer products as it is for straight up consumer products.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, to be honest.
Take the sharing economy poster child Uber, for example.
A shining example of a new social era built on transparency, connectedness and stakeholder empowerment.
Driven by both a social mission and social values: advocacy, connection, and collaboration. Harnessing technology to create social marketplaces that facilitate trust, dual accountability and social capital between and amongst its stakeholders, employees, customers, and partners.
A brand with a purpose beyond profit.
The Uber Drivers Networks of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London who went on the latest of several strikes and held protest demonstrations against the company’s somewhat unethical driver squeezing practices outside Uber HQ’s last week might contest this.
Or let’s ask the drivers working for 3rd Party fleet partners operating as mini-Uber bases, which, for all intents and purposes are operating under the exact same economic and operational principles of the yellow cab or black car bases that Uber was supposed to replace.
We should also give (dis)honourable mention to Uber in la France with their recent promotion offering riders the option ‘hot chick’ model drivers.
To be fair, it was France, but to describe the promo as “acceptable” misogyny feels like a bit of a stretch.
Uber is an easy target, admittedly.
In Jean Baudrillard’s 1970 book, The Consumer Society he describes consumption itself as some sort of ‘magical thinking’. This is why advertising works so well.
Goods conveying properties beyond their intended use.
Anti-consumption is probably more so.
You see, the post social media analysts (now sharing economy experts) like to think that organisations like Uber are somehow subversive.
But they are not. The system is simply incorporating a new market segment.
And it is the same old competitive consumption, that drives this same consumer spending.
It’s positional and pure marketing.
But the label helps resolve that particular cognitive dissonance.
Now you can feel like a do-gooder and still consume.
We always seek to gain status for ourselves with what we buy (or rent), and everybody does it too.
The seemingly purpose-driven brands of the sharing economy and suchlike might be the new cool, but the status-oriented nature of the activity remains the same for the consumers.
Consumerism is something we do to each other, and if anything, straight up conspicuous consumption is more authentic than conscious consumption because at least the status-driven nature of it is not disguised.
[Note: Reid/McLarens 'never trust a hippy' was a thinly veiled jibe directed at Richard Branson, who's current space tourism product is just about the ultimate positional good, this week's 'setback' notwithstanding.]