The Price Of Purpose

“The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.” Bill Bernbach, 1989.

Has the increasing focus on brand purpose meant that brands and agencies have lost their way? Can brand purpose sell more stuff to more people?

Terry Smith, influential investment analyst made his position pretty clear at the start of 2022 as he directed he’s ire at sandwich condiments. “a company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot”.

The problem, highlighted by the quote above, is that the argument has become reductive. Two battle lines drawn; purpose is portrayed as the enemy of profit and brands that don’t talk about purpose are ‘evil corporates’ who only care about their shareholders. 

It is, of course, more nuanced.

Scales illustration
Scales illustration

First things first. Do the people buying the stuff actually care about what brands do outside of their main business? The overwhelming answer is yes. Study after study shows that a significant majority of consumers believe brands can and should be transparent about their principles and will buy brands that stand for a greater purpose. 68% according to Kantar research, rising to 82% according to Razorfish/VICE Media Group research in 2021.

Man holding two green apples

Which brings us to the role of Branding vs. Advertising/Marketing. They are not mutually exclusive of course, but the role of Brand should be built on long-term strategies. A brand needs to connect consistently with people outside of the buying cycle. The number one driver of business growth is brand salience. Being front of mind when consumers are considering a category is key, and that means having conversations outside of the functional role of the product and in broader cultural terms.

Equally, people care about brand purpose when you ask them if they do. And they care about it when they’re consciously or subconsciously pulling together their purchase shortlist. But, when they are at the point of final consideration, all sorts of obvious factors come into play; packaging, price, quality, provenance, recommendations, discounts, messaging etc. Advertising is the voice of the brand. But importantly, it also nudges people through the purchase journey where it takes on a different, more functional role. Not all advertising or marketing can or should focus on purpose alone..


So, should a brand’s long-term strategies always be founded on a Brand Purpose? The answer is no. Like any strategic decision, Purpose as a long-term strategy is a choice. Brands need to decide whether the role they play in the category allows them to have a purpose-led positioning; is it authentic, is it distinctive, is it believable and ownable? Importantly, this doesn’t mean that brands that don’t choose a purpose-led strategy are the ‘evil corporates’.

Man wearing patagonia jacket

Patagonia has a clear, category-relevant and distinctive purpose-led strategy that has successfully driven growth and profit. Pret a Manger equally drives growth and profit around a positioning on fresh, handmade, easily accessible food; but they have also quietly distributed unsold food to homeless shelters and charities. They haven’t made Purpose their key strategic positioning, but that doesn’t stop them doing things to make their communities better.

Illy Coffee is similarly, primarily positioned around the quality and provenance of their coffee. But they are also a Certified B Corporation; this means they are a leader in a global movement for an inclusive, sustainable and regenerative economy.

And this brings me to my final point…

Reusable Illy coffee cup

What seems a central pillar of the B Corps movement is that businesses and brands must stop seeing Purpose and Profit as opposing forces. Whether Purpose sits at the heart of their strategy or not, being part of a purpose-led conversation allows brands to connect with more people with shared values and beliefs and drives growth and profit. 

Most importantly though, is that a significant proportion of that profit is then used to support purpose driven activities through internal or external investment. Far from being opposing forces, Purpose and Profit can and should be symbiotic; a virtuous circle that builds long-term positive change for businesses, people, communities and planet.

“More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” Bill Bernbach, 1989.


– Kieron Weedon, Strategy Director at Kingdom & Sparrow.