Two weeks ago, Hein Schumacher, the newly-minted CEO of Unilever declared purpose an “unwelcome distraction” for brands. This about-face comes from the brand historically known for its portfolio of purpose-led brands. Unilever has been called out before for “losing the plot” for forcing purpose-driven brand-building, marketing, and performative activism.
But “purpose” isn't the problem.
Brand purpose has a long history, but the concept took a strong hold with increasing political, economic, and social polarization. Amid political and social upheaval that coincided with the rise of social media, brands started taking a stance and using that stance to sell. For a while being purpose-led worked as a differentiator; until seemingly every brand was taking a stance on everything all of the time. At this point, the discourse shifted to outing brands as “trustwashing.”
Today’s empowered consumers aren’t merely smarter or louder than prior generations, they also have algorithmic priority in divisive discourse. Anything that creates a pile-on is given prioritization on social media platforms. Why? It creates more engagement than Tina’s photo dump of her third trip to Mexico City this year.
Consumers won’t stand for inauthenticity — if they see it, they’ll call it out. Of course, consumer behavior isn’t as principled; see: Shein’s growth. The maybe-performative consumer finger-pointing leaves brands tripping over themselves. Brand leaders are in endless debate over which causes to support, which cultural moments to comment on, and which influencers to partner with. So they’re taking one of two routes: either throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. (It’s giving everything, everywhere, all at once) or attempting to stay neutral (unfortunately, in a landscape where hyperbolic media amplifies every social tremor and trend cycles spin ever faster, there’s no sanctuary for neutrality).
But there is a third route, which starts with brands looking inward, getting in touch with their true reason to be — their “philosophical heartbeat” — as one CEO called it, and using that process to reshape their values so they’re useful in guiding behaviors. In this scenario, purpose isn’t dead––it’s more important than ever.
How purpose became The Thing
In the beginning, Coca-Cola and Pepsi vied for consumer affection through celebrity endorsements and taste-tests, trying to outshine each other in a saturated market. Campaigns were light-hearted and focused on consumer preferences. Competition was rooted in consumer choice, related to product attributes rather than cultural or political identities. Brand loyalty was cultivated through taste, habit, and marketing narratives focused on individual consumer satisfaction. Over time, though, brands were hit with a more profound dilemma: navigating the flip-flopping of polarized political, economic, and social discourse.
Today’s empowered consumers aren’t merely smarter or louder than prior generations, they also have algorithmic priority in divisive discourse. Anything that creates a pile-on is given prioritization on social media platforms.
Data from the past two decades shows the percentage of Americans holding ideologically consistent views has jumped from just under 10% in 1994 to over 20% in 2017, showcasing a doubling down on partisan beliefs. Pew Research Center’s studies show Republicans and Democrats are farther apart ideologically today than at any time in the past 50 years. The growing wealth gap with the wealth share of the top 1% increasing to 44.5% (vs. 31.2%, in 1962) has given rise to the Haves and the Have Nots.
Beyond ‘left’ vs ‘right, and ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’, came the social poles. New York Magazine’s iconic Approval Matrix came on the scene in 2004, marking the entrance of High Brow/Low Brow and Brilliant/Despicable. Since then, numerous copycats emerged. Social polarization worsened with the emergence of more divisive trends emerging. Hot or Not. In or Out. Our hyperbolic media, serving as both catalyst and magnifier for division, has accelerated this shift.
This accelerated polarization coincides with the rise of social media as a dominant form of media consumption. In the past, consumers were seen as passive recipients of brand messages and products, but social media introduced active, conscious consumerism, turning customers into proactive stakeholders. This facilitated demands for new policies, practices, and investments in areas like corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and DE&I. All of a sudden, Purpose was THE thing.
The rise and fall of purpose-led brands
When I worked at Unilever in 2017, every brand was expected to define and aspire to a higher purpose anchored to social and/or environmental responsibility. It was believed to work as a selling tactic. The poster brand for purpose was (and still is?) Ben & Jerry’s, whose activism has deep roots stemming from the company’s earliest days. They lay out a very clear purpose, mission, and values: they make ice cream, and then use it as a tool for changing the world.
But for many other brands, an impact-driven purpose wasn’t part of their inception. So they began trying to find their impact or activism niche.
When Starbucks initially forbade employees from wearing Black Lives Matter apparel, social media backlash was swift. The company quickly reversed its stance, creating its own BLM shirt for staff, aligning itself with the values of its consumers and employees. This is the same Starbucks that showed corporate leadership during the COVID-19 crisis by closing stores ahead of any State or Federal mandates.
In the past, consumers were seen as passive recipients of brand messages and products, but social media introduced active, conscious consumerism, turning customers into proactive stakeholders.
Nike's 2018 campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the U.S. National Anthem showed a similar realignment signal. The campaign slogan, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything," became a cultural flashpoint.
For a while, this digital landscape has facilitated a culture where silence or inaction could be interpreted as complicity. But around 2016 the term “purpose-washing” gained traction. Then came virtue signaling. People had enough purpose forced on them.
Purpose-driven activism vs. table-stakes brand responsibility
There is a difference between purpose-driven activism that is authentically engrained in the brand’s behavior and the table-stakes responsibility that comes with being a brand in 2023.
Patagonia is often cited as the canonical example of a brand with activism authentically tied to its purpose. Patagonia’s commitment to environmental causes was there from the beginning and has become integral to its brand identity, attracting consumers who share similar values and are willing to pay a premium for products from a company they perceive as responsible.
As an exercise, let’s think about an often-overlooked Unilever brand, Hellman’s. Why Hellman’s? Well first, because I was writing this while eating fries, which I always enjoy dipped in mayonnaise. I love mayonnaise (talk about polarizing!) So I surveyed my squeeze bottle: “Purpose” is all over it.
On the front, “REAL mayonnaise committed to sustainably-sourced eggs,” “100% recyclable bottle,” and on the back it reads, “We’re on a journey to reduce plastic waste.” Mayonnaise-loving me is glad to see them taking responsibility, but I question how that actually ties to a true purpose. Hellman’s doesn’t exist to save the planet. Hellman’s exists to make my chip-dipping experience more pleasurable. Speaking directly to the brand: “You exist for enjoyment. Your ‘activism’ and your commitment to sustainability is not your purpose, it’s to preserve a world where people can feel pleasure.”
Social and environmental responsibility is essential regardless of purpose, while activism isn't for every brand. Taking a stance can solidify brand identity and potentially increase brand value — if the activism is genuine and aligns with the brand’s core values and customer beliefs.
While consumer expectations are a driving force behind brand activism, it is crucial for brands to approach activism thoughtfully and not try to force it into a purpose where it doesn’t belong.
Mayonnaise can just be mayonnaise.
Influence, Counter-influence, and the new branding battleground
The increasing role of influencers and creators in how brands reach consumers has brought about another dilemma for brands. The interplay between influencers and brands has dragged brand values further into the spotlight. Influencers, wielding the power to persuade or dissuade, force brands to substantiate their value claims with concrete actions. Brands can no longer hide behind clever marketing or vague promises.
In this era, every partnership or endorsement is a calculated risk, potentially polarizing consumers who increasingly gravitate towards or recoil from a brand based on its perceived social standing.
Your ‘activism’ and your commitment to sustainability is not your purpose, it’s to preserve a world where people can feel pleasure... Mayonnaise can just be mayonnaise.
The Age of Influence has also brought about cancel culture, making it all the more important that brands choose wisely when to insert themselves into cultural conversations. I always find it funny watching a brand leader spend hours on something like color-matching the caps of their packaging, but YOLO a social post — or delete a negative comment — without considering the potential blowback.
Over the past five years, too many brands learned the hard way that their survival hinges on the authenticity and integrity of their stance on issues that matter to their audiences. The era of performative branding is giving way to a demand for genuine commitment, and influencers are at the forefront, guiding and sometimes pushing brands into a future where they must truly embody their values.
For brands drowning in the enshittification of the internet, the purpose is the life raft
What about today? The lightning speed at which our world moves plus platforms serving up streams of endless overstimulating content are leaving brands fatigued and confused. The contemporary landscape of branding in the context of rapidly shifting trends and their impact on marketing strategies.
Nikita Walia’s essay, Trend-Scanning + You highlights the pressure to stay abreast of every emergent trend. It can be as thrilling as it is overwhelming for leaders to keep up. The only filter for the 'enshittification' of trends — enshittification in this context meaning ‘a deluge of content that degrades the entire experience’ —is what genuinely resonates: authenticity over marketability. We should instead strive to create something enduring rather than Frankenstein-ing a bunch of fleeting moments and trends together.
Without a values-based approach, brands may become exploitative, force-fitted, or culturally insensitive; resulting in the “ick” people feel when they witness a brand's inauthentic attempt to infiltrate a subculture or trend.
Well-defined brand values can become the "operating system" for their external actions and messaging, filtering through the noise to find the true signal of enduring, authentic purpose.
If a cultural event aligns with their values, and they have a legitimate stake or contribution to the issue, then it makes sense for them to weigh in. However, they must do so with a commitment to long-term engagement and a clear plan for how they will contribute positively to the matter at hand.
Strategic authenticity and the imperative of internal/external cohesion
My dear friend Kelsey Steele, SVP and Group Strategy Director at FCB New York (and the brains behind their genius culture zine, That Zine Thing) says to brands, “Look inward… that is the only thing that will give you the strength to withstand the winds of change and the millions of peanut gallery comments that will pressure you to make decisions their way. Take culture into account, take what consumers say into account, but be brave enough to hold your ground and do what’s right for YOU. In other words… stand for your purpose, don’t search for it.”
The same goes for values and behaviors. In the early days of Atomic Number 8, my creative studio, we built countless brand books by working with founders and aligning on values in a vacuum. Today, I spend way more time and energy defining the actions a brand takes internally and externally, plus the actions their consumer takes, to uphold those values. Values spoken or written mean nothing. Values in action are everything.
One of Coca-Cola’s values is Collaboration. I'm not sure why they chose this as a value, but there are numerous behaviors I’d expect to stem from it: increased investment in brand partnerships, holocratic organizational structure vs. hierarchical, which software tools they use, their WFH policy, and their approach to designing limited edition cans. There are so many behaviors Collaboration could inform! But until they’re defined and acted upon, this value is an empty promise that could ultimately be seen as inauthentic.
Brands leveraging authenticity not as a buzzword, but as the very essence of their operations, will ensure that their purpose is not an afterthought or a marketing veneer, but a living, breathing aspect of their identity.
Purpose isn’t said or written, it’s acted and felt
The relationship between consumers and brands hinges on the authenticity of a brand's commitment to its core values, and its ability to reflect these in every action and initiative in order to generate and protect trust.
In a landscape where trust is fragile and scrutiny is high, a values-based approach to purpose and action can serve as a safeguard against accusations of inauthenticity and purpose-washing. It requires brands to be introspective, consistent, and genuinely committed to the ideals they espouse.
The brands that will lead the way are those that engage with cultural movements and consumer sentiments with empathy and through a genuine lens, ensuring their involvement is not merely reactive but stems from a deep-seated alignment with their own values. They will need to be agile, continuously adapting to an ever-shifting landscape of consumer expectations and global realities while staying true to a North Star.
Only then can they contribute meaningfully to the cultural discourse and avoid the potential backlash of inauthentic purpose statements. In doing so, brands can help ensure that we aren’t moving towards a post-purpose world, but one where purpose is real, impactful, and integral to business strategy, brand experience, and customer retention.