Anju Joseph
Aug 8, 2018

The purpose of purpose

Why does it matter to the consumer?

The purpose of purpose

It is now beyond doubt that purpose is critical for branding and how brands perceived as meaningful are benefitting from significantly higher share of wallet globally. Millennials are also being referred to as “pro-social” or even the “purpose-driven generation”.

We all know that purpose works for the business, feeds the topline, keeps the bottom line healthy and also creates better engagement with consumers. This is backed by statistics, academic work and expert views. But why does purpose work for the consumer and why do they seek purpose?

In order to answer this question, I need to start by setting the context of the times that we are living in. Eminent historian Yuval Noah Harari says:

...For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, criminals and terrorists combined. 

Valerie Keller, the global head for EY Beacon Institute describes the marketing world along similar lines:

Around the world, the business environment is in a permanent state of disruption…today more than ever, companies are seeking a new genetic code that will help them continuously evolve - to survive and thrive.

In the many consumer interactions we have across the globe, people’s view of the world today is one that is culturally and environmentally degraded, one of artifice. And there is consumption fatigue. Common in consumer vocabulary are terms like stress, loneliness, depression and a sense of ever-present threat—a threat from the unknown, from spiraling ambitions, ecological changes, devastation and breakdown of fundamental societal and community structures. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

In a world that is becoming universally branded, brands have become essential mediators for many aspects of our lives including aspirations, relationships and beliefs. Given this, purpose for brands makes sense at many levels.

At the level of animal instinct

Human beings belong to the species of homo sapiens. As any other animal, we are genetically coded to propagate our lineage and ensure its existence over generations. Harari states that “a large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fueled by the fear of death”.

However, given the disruptive environment and the threat perception, people are looking for anchors that promise a predictably good and better future. The idea of purpose gives them just that. It makes them feel better about the choices that they make today and gives them a sense of safety about the world that they are leaving behind for the future. So, purpose works at the deepest unconscious level. When a person buys Patagonia or Tom’s, there is a feeling that they are contributing to the future of the globe and humanity.

At the level of the social being

Human beings need and seek deep, emotional connections to grow, thrive and prosper. In a world of Tinder and social media, where one has thousands of virtual connections but only a few relationships, the human soul seeks meaningful relationships, beyond the superficial. Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together explains “these days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time”.

Purpose lends a deeper sense of belonging via authentic, emotional connections through a shared belief in something bigger. These emotional connections are not at the mercy of fickle discounts or promotions or a right or left swipe. They are deeply human. An example of a brand making use of this is shared workspace company WeWork, which has an emphasis on community and events that sets it apart from its competitors. The promise of creating a sense of belonging with a larger world is hugely enticing.

At the level of the individual

We have the need to constantly grow and evolve and hence, we are constantly in search of the next big opportunity, the next big acquisition and the next ego boost. However, research has shown that this quest is able to deliver at best a transient sense of high. People feel empty and on a constant treadmill of seeking, which never gets them to who they ideally want to be. Given this, people are constantly seeking stories that they can tell themselves of their own journey.

Brands with purpose allow consumers to construct positive narratives of their own lives. In the words of psychologist Martin Seligman, they find “meaning that comes from belonging and to serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you”. They do this by eliciting joy (Coke), enabling connections (FedEx), inspiring exploration and new experiences (Airnbnb), evoking pride (Mercedes) or impacting society (Tesla).

In the age of distraction, nothing is more rewarding than attention. Brands with purpose convey empathy and deep understanding to consumers in an authentic way. They make people feel valued in a world where they often feel diminished and invisible.

At the level of consumption

Even at the level of consumption, brands with purpose ease the paradox of choice for the consumer. There is sameness in most categories. When a brand has a higher-level conversation with its audience, where it recognises them as individuals with clear points of view and problems ranging from the everyday to the epic, the choice becomes easier and almost default.

Purpose augments the qualities we associate with a brand. Consider ‘organic and grown without preservatives’. This claim cues enhanced taste as well as health. Or two amazing luxury car models, but one of them promises that 85% of its parts are recyclable.

True happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, then what is the benefit of capitalism?

The dilemma today is not one of want or becoming. It is not of the present or the future. It is both. What we want to become and what we want to want are both important. How I feel about myself today and the meaning I participate in, create and contribute to for the future are both important. This is where brands with purpose win.

Anju Joseph is partner at Quantum Consumer Solutions.

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