Mayonnaise and the mess of purpose

Reflections on Unilever, naughty marketers and other muddles

What’s the purpose of mayonnaise? That’s the question a frustrated Terry Smith, founder of Fundsmith (top-10 shareholder of Unilever – the makers of Dove soap, Magnum ice cream and Hellmann’s mayonnaise) recently posed to investors in his annual letter.

In view of Unilever’s declining share price, Smith chose to vent his fury at the company’s apparent obsession with making the world a better place. “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” he opined. “The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).”

Smith isn’t the only one calling out some of the eyebrow-raising claims around purpose. Marketers have been up in arms over industry guru Peter Field’s recent defence of ‘brand purpose’ campaigns. The cause of their ire? Field’s insistence on defending a purpose-led approach, despite his own research showing that campaigns without a purpose focus actually perform better (when it comes to long-term business effects).

Add to that a recent survey showing customers increasing scepticism of brands that claim to be doing good in the world (only 43% truly believe these brands are living out their stated purpose) – and it seems we may be witnessing a backlash against the notion of purpose.

Spillage in aisle three

The reality? Even those of us in the ‘purpose movement’ must admit things have got a bit messy. Like an unwanted dollop of condiment on your favourite shirt, some things can’t simply be ignored.

In the spirit of candid reflection, here is a look at some of the mess we’ve made of purpose…

1. The mess of brand purpose
I’ve written about this before. Those of us in the marketing profession need to confess we’ve overplayed our hand when it comes to the notion of ‘brand purpose’. The idea arose when marketing gurus grew tired of the timeless principles of their trade (4 P’s and all that) and went in search of something shiny and new. The result? Over a decade of ad agency execs and CMOs taking the wheel of purpose and plotting the quickest route to the only destination they knew – increased market share.

The unintended consequence of letting marketers take charge of the purpose wagon has become clear. It includes disingenuous campaigns (like Pepsi’s tie-up with Kendall Jenner for Black Lives Matter) and inauthentic statements (like this one from label company, Avery –”to help make every brand more inspiring, and the world more intelligent”). Come on, marketers: time to grab that mop and get scrubbing.

2. The mess of muddled language
Ask five consultants what they mean by ‘purpose’ and you’ll likely get 25 answers. The words vary (‘brand purpose’, ‘corporate purpose’, ‘shared purpose’), the adjectives abound (‘purpose-led’, ‘purpose-driven’, ‘purpose-centric’) and the definitions span the spectrum (‘your why’, ‘your North Star’, ‘the problem you’re solving in the world’). Perhaps the biggest challenge with the language of purpose is that it is inherently contradictory. In one sense, it’s very simple – it means what it says in the dictionary. In another sense, this single word has become shorthand for a whole range of connected ideas around how an organisation should operate in today’s world (with a particular emphasis on looking after the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders).

3. The mess of forgetting the basics
There’s an unwritten rule here at said & done: ‘Never use a good cause to sell an average product’. In other words, purpose isn’t a substitute for doing things properly. Whether that’s the hard work of finding out whether the market actually wants what you are offering, putting in the effort of creating a product/service of genuine quality, or cracking a viable go-to-market strategy – these are unavoidable milestones, regardless of how much good you want to do in the world.

The recent Deloitte Global Marketing Trends featured an interesting look at whether customers really make purchasing decisions based on purpose (or whether they simply say they do when asked by researchers). The research found that price and quality remain the main drivers of consumer decision-making– with purpose and values serving to aid differentiation and engender a sense of loyalty. In short, purpose may be a great way to get noticed and grow your fanbase – but it’s no substitute for getting the basics right.

4. The mess of the ‘heroes & villains’ narrative
BrewDog were in the firing line last year for going big on sustainability whilst allowing a ‘toxic culture of fear’ to fester in their factories. Overnight they went from darling to pariah within the purpose space – with even B Corp forced into launching a review and defending the integrity of their accreditation as a result.

It was textbook ‘how the mighty have fallen’ stuff; an example of how the discourse around leaders and brands can so easily become binary. A world where we have “good guys” (BrewDog, Patagonia, Salesforce) and “bad guys” (Sports Direct, Weatherspoons, Bank of Scotland) is a world where we assume the virtue of one group and dismiss the potential virtue in the other.

In our experience, this is one of the reasons why so many businesses leaders are ‘purpose shy’. They want to do things the right way; they want genuine ESG commitments; they want a purpose statement that’s meaningful and authentic. But the over-simplified narrative (and the ‘pitchforks at dawn’ that often come with it) leave them wondering: ‘Will we be shot for sticking our head above the parapet?’

5. The mess of making money
The final mess of purpose is what to do with that other P – profit. Should a business that bangs on about purpose have to prove their motives are pure, and that this purpose is somehow ‘separate’ from the grubby business of turning a profit? Or is it purpose that in fact has something to ‘prove’, evidencing that a purpose-led approach is verifiably more profitable than the old way of doing things?

There are two distinct camps of thought emerging – the ‘purists’ (wary of associating profit with purpose) and the ‘pragmatists’ (who are quick to point out there is no purpose without profit!). It’s another example where the discussion and debate, though important, has got a bit messy.

A mess worth cleaning up

In summary, there are probably relatively few ‘rights and wrongs’ when it comes to purpose. There is however plenty of supporting evidence that this approach to doing business really does work (like our research with 250+ entrepreneurs during the pandemic) along with a host of valid critiques for when it doesn’t (our irked Unilever investor and hopping-mad marketers as two recent examples).

To circle back to Smith’s rhetorical question on the purpose of mayonnaise, the answer probably is something to do with salads and sandwiches. But behind that recognisable jar of condiment sits a bigger question: “How can companies – and the brands they create – be about more than simply producing products and pursuing profits?”

Now that’s a question worth asking – and a reason to keep doing what we can to clean up some of the mess we’ve made.

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