These days, the marketers behind nearly every brand on Earth are being told to “find their purpose”—their reason for existence that transcends their products and services. The one that can endear them deeply to their customers on a more fundamental, human level and ensure their efforts contribute to more than just profit generation.

This is a wonderful sentiment—one I’ve espoused to clients many times. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Purpose-driven enterprises are powerful, necessary forces within today’s society. They come in many shapes, and their paths to purpose often look very different.

But let’s be clear: Not all companies are, or should be, purpose-driven. When a brand’s efforts toward serving a broader purpose ring hollow, they can cause more harm than good.

Purpose is a spectrum, and a brand’s place and fluidity on that spectrum depend on many factors. Let’s take a look at five points along this spectrum to help marketers assess where their brands fall and what that means for how they move forward in a purpose-obsessed marketing landscape.

The five points are:

  • Born with a Purpose
  • Reinvented for Good
  • Antithetical to a Broader Purpose
  • Went Off the Rails
  • Seeking Purpose through Acquisition

Born with a Purpose

Being a startup isn’t easy, but when it comes to purpose, building with purpose in mind from the ground up is the truest way to go. We see this in brands like thank you, a social enterprise that commits 100 percent of their profits from product sales toward the goal of helping to end extreme poverty.

Or consider Harvi, a newly launched gardening system conceived as a way to positively influence human consumption habits by providing aspiring urban gardeners with a way to create their own farm-to-table experiences. Purpose-born brands like these were created to fulfill a larger purpose in society, and their corporate values and behaviors fall in line accordingly.

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Reinvented for Good

Of course, the vast majority of today’s brands were not purpose-born. But that doesn’t mean they can’t authentically reinvent themselves in this fashion. Consider Patagonia, the pinnacle of purpose-driven enterprises. The company didn’t start out on a mission to save our planet. It started out with the intention of making and selling quality climbing hardware.

But the essence of environmental responsibility was core to the origins of the company, so as it pivoted to purpose, the fit was authentic. But what really makes for a successful purpose-focused reinvention is a company’s willingness and success in extending its purpose to its own corporate culture and fundamental business practices—a willingness Patagonia has proven time and time again.

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Antithetical to a Broader Purpose

Then there are companies on the opposite end of the spectrum—the ones whose purpose doesn’t extend beyond the goal of turning a profit and whose very products run contrary to the best interests of people, society, and our planet. Here we’re talking about categories like oil, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries whose products are fundamentally destructive to our planet and bodies.

These are the companies whose attempts to market themselves as serving a higher cause are doing a disservice to the fundamental notion of purpose. It’s not to say these companies shouldn’t try to offset or minimize the harm caused by their products. But they must also resist the urge to purpose-wash their actions as a surface-level marketing ploy.

Went Off the Rails

Separately, let’s talk about the companies that were founded for a greater purpose but then, somewhere along the line, lost their way. Consider Levi’s, which was founded in the 1850s with the purpose of outfitting the people who were building our country. Somewhere along the line, though, Levi’s became just a blue jeans company. However, over the past decade-plus, the company has rediscovered (and expanded) its purpose, as evidenced in its “Go Forth” campaign. These days, the brand stands for social responsibility and sustainability in both words and actions.

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Seeking Purpose through Acquisition

Finally, in today’s M&A-obsessed landscape, I’d be remiss to not mention companies that seek to reestablish themselves as purpose-driven enterprises through smart acquisitions. In these instances, a brand’s place on the purpose spectrum is determined by its intentions.

When a larger corporation swallows up a smaller, purpose-driven competitor, is it looking to absorb the smaller company’s values and infuse it into the DNA and corporate practices of its larger organization? Or is it merely hoping to wear the halo of its new asset? If the former is the case, the brand just might be able to reinvent itself around purpose. But in many cases, when the latter is the case, we’re looking at just another instance of purpose-washing.

In summary

Today’s brand landscape is littered with loose talk around “purpose,” and it’s time to stop acting as though brand purpose is something that can be simply picked up and worn like a hat. True purpose is fundamental to a company’s corporate culture and behavior. Anything less is just slick marketing.

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