Woolley Marketing: Purpose or Profit


When the C-suite from two of the biggest consumer packaged goods advertisers speak out about the need to rethink the trend of purpose and doing good in business, then you know something has probably gone wrong.

Cartoon by Dennis Flad, with permission (2022)

Unilever CEO Alan Jope has warned that “brand campaigns promising to make the world a better place, but failing to take concrete action, only further destroy trust in the industry when it is already insufficient. “.

More recently, Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G, after years of promoting wellness for business, said, “We used to say a force for good must be a force for growth.” But we’ve found that we’re spending so much time on the good, you know, we have to make sure we’re paying enough attention to growth”.


But why the concern? When the major advertisers talk about it, you have to start wondering if the focus on advertising for good hasn’t gone too far.

In his book “Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell”, ex-creative director Steve Harrison argues that the creative industry has been hijacked by the political left, and that the industry no longer wants to drive the capitalist engine of growth and instead has a new purpose, which is to save the world.

Steve Harrison even quotes the industry’s stronghold of creative efficiency, the UK IPA, as saying that the industry is facing an “efficiency crisis”.

So what’s the problem ? Is the focus on the goal? This seems highly unlikely, as there are many successful organizations that have a business purpose at their center. Most people can crank out a list of companies that basically seem to exist to make the world a better place.

But the reason they set and live that goal is to be profitable. After all, profit is to business what breathing is to people. None of us live just to breathe. But if you don’t breathe, you don’t live.

Instead, the problem seems to be that the purpose got lost in translation. Instead of defining the true purpose of the business, an easier substitute is found, usually some kind of cause or charity, and this is simply tied to the brand or business through communications or advertisements without no real commercial commitment to deliver.

As Alan Jope said above, just promising to save the world without doing anything tangible to fulfill that promise is destructive.

In Will Storr’s excellent book The Status Game, he defines three types of status: traditional dominance status, skill status, and virtue status. It’s that third, in a world of social media and character retention of being good by doing good, that becomes toxic. Instead of having to do good, simply declare that you are doing good and you gain virtue status. There’s even a term for it – virtue signalling.

Take the creative awards judging room, where highly experienced creatives judge the work of their peers largely on the criteria of choosing the work you wish you had done. Believe me, that’s how creative work is judged, because unlike efficiency awards, it’s only the work to be judged.

Faced with a big campaign to sell an extra thousand tons of washing powder that viscerally communicates its determination to save the world, which one would you choose? Is it any wonder that ads that offer a purpose beyond selling are the ones most likely to win gold?

This does not mean that there is no place in advertising for communication purposes. But purpose in the business sense is more than just a communication brief. It’s a way to align culture and strategy across multiple groups of people, including employees, shareholders, suppliers, distributors, and yes, even customers.

It is not enough to choose the last cause and associate it with the brand or company. And doing it for a particular month like Pride, Black Lives Matter, or just for one day, like World Environment or International Women’s, and then going back to business as usual for other days of the year doesn’t work either.

If your strategy is to do good to be good, then that’s a commitment 365 days a year and expressed in everything you do – not just in your advertising. If you can’t handle that, just focus on growing and generating profits.

Darren Woolley, Founder and Global CEO of Trinity P3


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