The status quo is always being challenged. Whatever dominates is always being criticized and derogated. The mainstream is never the only thing. Trends invite counter-trends.
Purpose used to be a challenge to the mainstream. The idea of shareholder capitalism accountable to no other constituencies of interest became the mainstream view of business during the 1970s. It held sway but was never free from criticism, particularly as global warming worries grew. The concept of corporate purpose or social responsibility first grew popular as a way for brands to do more for their own bottom-line by doing more for society at-large. Purpose was a counter-trend.
The competitive advantage provided by something disappears when every brand does it. That is where purpose is today. Every company at least pays lip service, and generally much more, to purpose-oriented objectives like sustainability and DEI. As a result, purpose does not distinguish one company from another. It is now the status quo. And the status quo is always being challenged by counter-trends.
Purpose And The Future
Thus, one aspect of purpose as mainstream business, as peculiar as it may seem, is that the future of purpose will be more pushback against purpose. The future of purpose is not just ‘more purpose,’ so to speak. It is also ‘more anti-purpose.’ This is being seen already.
For example, a number of Silicon Valley CEOs have explicitly rejected purpose as a corporate guidepost and have informally signed onto a concept known as “mission protocol,” or a laser focus on business objectives without the diversion of societal objectives. Similarly, last year, 19 U.S. state attorneys general notified investment management fund BlackRock that they believed its ESG goals were inconsistent with obtaining the highest financial return. On a different but related front, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently announced the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership as a center of learning deliberately insulated from progressive liberal views on topics like speech and censorship. All of these things and more are examples of the purpose counter-trend now bubbling up.
None of this is to suggest that purpose is in any danger of being reversed. One of the misunderstood ironies of purpose, seen most clearly with ESG, is that it was never a challenge to capitalism, only to a particular way in which capitalism has been practiced. Purpose is a corrective, not a coup. But now that that corrective has become standard operating procedure, an alternative way of thinking about business is gathering voice. That’s the future of purpose—challenges to purpose and the ways in which the mainstream of purpose will fight back to preserve its newfound dominance.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar
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