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The Problem with Purpose: Its Real Power is Hidden

Advertising Agency
Kansas City, USA
INFLUENCER: Millennials, you’re losing your charm, writes Barkley's David Gutting

A couple years ago, a baby-boomer contemporary of mine - a research analyst we engage from time to time - was chatting with me about the relationship millennials have with brands.

He didn’t believe it was as 'authentic' as the hype, and he rejected the notion that the cohort demanded higher purpose from the companies they supported.

I’ll always remember his comment: “Back in Woodstock days, I wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a T-shirt that promoted any brand. But millennials do.” In our focus group of two, I concurred.

The 'Millennial Generation' is getting some bad press lately. The trend spotters of the day are pointing out that Gen Z, in response to the Parkland shootings, has been more engaged and organised than their millennial counterparts ever had been.

Millennials, you’re losing your charm

There’s a better explanation: anyone under 25 always seems more authentic and purpose-driven than the rest of us. I’ve validated this through hundreds of interviews, encounters, and observations with consumers of every age and disposition.

The problem for millennials is that soon none of them will be under 25. They’re being replaced by far more authentic Gen Zs.

The advertising industry loves youth, so we assign higher purpose to their ethos. That’s probably the single biggest reason why purpose is such a big deal in strategy circles.

But what does it mean?  

In his writing and in his lectures, Simon Sinek (Start with Why) argues that people don’t “buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Sinek’s definition of purpose is broader than most, because he believes that when an inner ideal is in play, everything from brands to social movements are more powerful.

Sinek has had a real impact on both agencies and clients. Strategists at all levels get obsessed with “finding the why.” 

But I’m not sure that purpose plays quite the role in persuading people to do something as we might think. In branding, it’s rare that consumers have a clear idea of what brands stand for.

Ask a focus group of general population consumers what Nike stands for - which I have done numerous times - and you’ll get jumbled, incoherent answers. Michael Jordan? “Just do it?” The swoosh? Rarely does anyone tell you that they hear a higher story about personal accomplishment. If they did, they probably heard it in their marketing class.

It’s not that purpose is unimportant. It’s just that consumers connect more with what a brand does for them.

Purpose is important for one reason only: without it, brands can’t achieve clarity and depth. They need both, in equal parts.

Brands, know what you’re doing

Sinek contrasts Apple to less inspiring competitors, maintaining that they succeed because they “start with why” - in their case a constant challenge to the status quo. This puts Apple’s “what” - beautifully designed technology - into context. Sinek argues that because people get why Apple is doing what they do, they are more inclined to buy their products.

I would suggest that something else is at work. It’s amazing how much a brand can accomplish if it knows what it’s doing, and it matters very little whether anyone else knows what that is.

It also doesn’t have to be a lofty purpose.

Let’s contrast Apple to Microsoft. Conventional brand wisdom says that Apple is the more powerful, why-driven brand. But based on the price-to-book ratio of publicly traded companies, one of the purest measures of intangible value, Microsoft (a ratio of 9.5:1) is about 30% more powerful than Apple (7.3:1).

Apple may be the more idealistic of the two. But Microsoft is just as driven in their purpose - pragmatic and powerful software for the masses - as Apple is in theirs. They just don’t wear that purpose on their sleeve.

My Woodstock-era, peace sign-flashing, anti-establishment research analyst and I have some advice for our millennial successors: you’ll survive becoming 'inauthentic' after you turn 25. For one thing, you’ll love the drop in your insurance rates.

As a consumer once said to me in a focus group, “Well you know - Progressive Insurance - they run all those ads. They’re all about being the good neighbour.”

So much for State Farm’s purpose.

David Gutting, SVP/Director of Intelligence at Barkley