Purpose-led marketing has gone through the same hype cycle as many other phenomena over the last decade. First hyped as the future of marketing and then reevaluated as having little proven value in the brand-building sphere.

The reasoning for the critique is mainly that consumers don’t care enough about brands to get involved in whatever purpose said brand might pursue. And also, causes people really care about (you know, democracy, equality, the environment) are considered too important to be championed by cereal brands.

But the fact that people will not automatically buy your product because your brand has a purpose, does not mean the idea of purpose is useless. It just needs to be put into perspective. Let’s look at the ongoing trend of communicating sustainability and how that fits into the field of marketing.

The boundaries of sustainability

Marketing is the discipline of maximizing a company’s profit within the boundaries set out by management, owners and regulatory institutions.

Ipso facto, a company’s sustainability strategy must originate from the board or the owners. It must state to the marketing department (and other departments) that the company owners want to drive a sustainability agenda, even if it is at the expense of growth.

Brands like Patagonia and Toms shoes are examples of the principle of purpose guiding the overall strategy, thereby setting limitations for the marketing team, but also giving them something to communicate. Tom’s shoes marketing team would not be allowed to create a lower cost range of shoes by excluding the brands fundamental one-for-one principle. But on the other hand, they are able to talk about purpose in marketing without being accused of greeenwashing.

So what happens if there are no such boundaries set out? Two possibilities;

If sustainability initiatives originate from the marketing department because it is the best way to generate growth for the company, it is not sustainability, it is just marketing (and potentially greenwashing). It is a tool for positioning or for gaining short term PR attention.

If sustainability initiatives originate from the marketing department despite not being the best way to generate growth for the company, it is sub optimization, going against the job description of marketers and going against the interest of the owners. This version is an example of the sometimes criticized wokeness of advertising professionals.

Either way, these types of sustainability initiatives illustrate the problems when you have a disconnect between advertising and overall corporate strategy. And the same disconnect problem can also apply to things like purpose, innovation and award-winning creativity.

I am not against communicating purpose in advertising, promoting sustainability or trying to have a positive impact on society. Advertising takes up a lot of space in our society and to try to do good where we can feels like something natural. It is just important for marketers to evaluate what mandate and what validity there is to go down that road, and to what end they are going there.

And while the divide between advertising and true strategy has been created by advertisers over-promising compared to the company behind them, there are positive developments arising. Rather than a gap that can only be closed by advertising becoming less purposeful, we see developments at the other end – the ownership. At the same time as criticism of overly woke advertising arises, we’re seeing a growing interest in sustainable and purpose-driven investment strategies. Meaning that rather than Madison Avenue dropping all idealism, perhaps Wall street can develop some. Wouldn’t that be great?