Why have so many smart people “lost the plot” on brand purpose?

Purpose received one of its most brutal critiques last week when Terry Smith, manager of the £29bn Fundsmith Equity fund, lashed out at Unilever’s “ludicrous” focus on sustainability, in response to their poor -0.2% annual return to his shareholders.

He wrote that:

“Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.… A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. 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).”

Sadly, this is not a new thing. As I wrote in the 3 Problems With Purpose, the idea that your brand needs to be ALL about a social mission or sustainability is tripping up countless CEOs and founders.  

So why have so many smart people “lost the plot" on brand purpose?   

For two simple reasons. 

1. People have forgotten what the word ‘purpose’ means.

Purpose is ‘the reason for which something is created or for which something exists.’

No wonder Smith gets riled when he hears Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever state that, “Fighting against food waste – that’s the purpose of Hellmann’s.” 

Of course, Hellmann’s whole reason for being is not just fighting against food waste.

It’s a condiment.

Sold by a for-profit business.

But what if Alan Jope had said Hellmann’s purpose is real taste and less waste.  (As some of their copy states on their website)?

Hellmann’s added to a wrap of yesterday’s roast pork leftovers makes it taste better and ensures you don’t waste it.  

And Hellmann’s ESG initiatives and communications are also focused on encouraging us to waste less food.


Tick in both boxes.

Less sense of having “lost the plot.”

2. Purpose is being driven by advertising agencies excited by an ‘advertising for good’ campaign idea.

They are not focused on creating part of long-term brand strategy intended to drive customer and employee experiences, innovation and business growth.

This has been exacerbated by The IPA (the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) defining purpose in their report published yesterday as,

The reason a commercial brand exists beyond maximising profit to produce other meaningful forms of positive impact for individuals, societies, or the environment. It communicates both an organising principle for action in the brand’s present and an aspiration for its future”.


Unless you’re a charity, your purpose, the reason you exist, needs to include ways to continue to serve customers to make profit.  Any ‘organising principle for present and future action’ must have applicability to better customer experiences, employee experiences and product innovation strategies that drive profit.

Purpose should not be the reason a brand exists BEYOND making profit. It must also help to drive profit.

How you do this is by writing a purpose statement that focuses on all important stakeholders. 

As Franz Paasche, head of corporate affairs globally for PayPal, stated in a recent McKinsey article,

 “We have five stakeholders we focus on: employees, customers, shareholders, governments and regulators, and society at large in the communities.” 

Apply this to how you write a purpose statement.  Work hard to write a statement that identifies the value you bring to three in particular: customers, employees, AND society at large.

Not only society at large.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of good examples from some of the world’s most valuable (and growing) brands to counter the lost-the-plot examples you might read from others.

Take Microsoft, who define the reason they exist as “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”  They call this their mission – they could just have easily called it their purpose.  It’s just their answer to WHY they exist.

As CEO, Satya Nadella, told attendees at a Stanford 'View From The Top' Event, one of his first acts as CEO was to define this statement, “To make much more explicit our sense of purpose and culture.” Because, “strategies and markets come and go. Those don’t.”

This statement works for customers, employees, AND as a driver of other meaningful forms of positive impact for individuals, societies, or the environment.  It is rooted in what they do and can drive product innovation just as much as it can drive ESG and employee initiatives, such as Satya’s focus on growth mindset.  

Note that Microsoft’s revenue in the three months ending in September 2021 hit $45.3 billion, up 22 percent from a year earlier. Profit rose 48 percent to $20.5 billion.

Terry Smith would be happy with this sort of shareholder return.

So what can you do to bring purpose back from the brink of madness?

Rein things in. 

Call out people who walk into the CEO’s office and present any purpose statement for their business that is not rooted in their product(s) and the primary people they serve (customers and employees) FIRST.

ALSO ensure that any purpose statement encompasses a commitment to something that has broader positive implications for society. 

This is a plea for all brand strategists sitting within agencies - advertising or otherwise. And all CEOs, CMOs and CHRO's in charge of articulating WHY a business or brand exists. Rein in the madness and create an authentic purpose with all your key stakeholders at its heart.

That’s all it takes.

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