January 23, 2020

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Our Hunger for Purpose: How Brands Can Help with "That Thing You Do"

This is the sixth and final part in a series about how brands can help people find what they want, rather than manipulate our desires to sell us their wares.


By Anna Simpson

In my book, The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire, each of the five chapters explores what we look for in life from a different angle: Community, Adventure, Aesthetics, Vitality and Purpose. In the last post, I asked whether brands can help us realise our appetite for life, rather than play to our insecurities. Today, I ask how brands can respond to our creative desire to give life meaning.


They are rarely thought of side by side but freedom fighters and commercial supply managers are coming to the same conclusion: that we are never truly ‘independent.’

We may aspire to self-sufficiency – supporting ourselves economically – just as states aspire to resource security (the ability to meet essential requirements – in food, energy, minerals, water and so on) without relying too heavily on foreign imports. But even as we go through this very process of reducing our direct dependence on others, we become more aware of how much we need them – whether it’s to maintain common resources (from fresh water and clean air to a regular supply of cacao) or to defend common beliefs (from freedom of expression to democracy).

Living Interdependently

For many people, the desire simply to live interdependently in the long-term is enough to have Anna Simpson book jacketsomething to strive for.

I’m not simply talking about charitable acts. I’m talking about the people in Taksim or Tiananmen Square, or those who take a stand through music, art and literature – from Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who exposed the 1941 Babiyy Yar massacre in a poem to the pro-LGBT lyrics of punk rock group Pussy Riot.

For some, pursuing a purpose in life is a creative impulse. They may be happy enough to wander aimlessly as clouds – and there’s certainly much to be gained – but they’re really after something more. It’s not enough for them to kick the ball into someone else’s net. They want to mark their own line in the sand and find their own way.

A resounding “I did it my way” comes to mind!

The Rise of Social Purpose

But that doesn’t mean you did it alone. No one ever did, not even Sinatra. Which is why I think brands could actually play a role in helping people to pursue their own, very personal, purposes in life. And why would they want to? Because all brands need to find ways to engage with their clientele, not just as consumers but as people.

How has a brand helped you find something you desire? Drop us a note or tweet to us at #BrandDesire to win a copy of The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire.

The rise of social purpose in brands is a global trend: in 2012, advertising agency Edelman found that in India, four in five consumers “want brands to make it easier for them to make a positive difference in the world.” For many Indians, the empowerment of people as consumers is a milestone toward greater freedom for all.

Unilever & Grameen Bank: Partnering in Our Journey for Purpose

In 2013, Unilever’s soap brand Lifebuoy launched a film – watched by over seven million people in its first six months – of a man walking painstakingly on his hands down a street, out of a village, through fields and over puddles to a well, where he finally sits down for a celebratory cup of chai. When an applauding admirer asks what he’s celebrating, he replies that it’s his son’s fifth birthday – and that this is his first child to reach the age of five. Soap plays a crucial role in reducing child mortality.

Brands don’t have to supply the answer.

Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank on the principle that if you lend people money, they’ll solve their own problems. Today, social enterprise is a huge growth area; relatively recent additions to the scene include London Creative Labs, Youth Finance International and Kiva.

Brands can also reward purpose.

Alfred Nobel founded his Prize – arguably one of the world’s most revered brands – to do just that: recognise those people “who shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” The popular prestige of the Nobel Prize persists despite many notorious mistakes thanks to Unilever-Age5-CSR-Pickits rich association with people who inspire love for what they did not what they wore or owned (Muhammad Yunus is one). They found creative ways to give their life meaning against the odds. Their stories may be extraordinary, but the desire that drove them on is ordinary enough.

Enough to drive many to leave high-paid unrewarding jobs for something a little more fulfilling.

Joie de Vivre: A Democratic Business Culture

The recognition that meaningful employment makes for a low turn-over caused Chip Conley, Founder of the hotel group JDV (for ‘Joie de Vivre’), to set about creating a more democratic business culture. He called on all his employees from cleaners to managers to help define the business strategy.

As a result, he claims, JDV’s turnover rate dropped to one-third below the industry average and the company was crowned the second best place to work in the San Francisco Bay area – “a remarkable feat for a service company that’s full of people cleaning toilets,” Conley quipped.

Valve: Valuing Employee Creativity

In the same vein, Gabe Newell, a former Microsoft employee, set up Washington-based tech and games company Valve with as much freedom and as little structure as possible: no job descriptions, no green sustainable brands billboardmanagers, no set working hours and no performance reviews. He had come to the conclusion that hierarchical management is well suited to military missions (“getting 1,000 men to march over a hill”) – but less so to innovation where the value is in creativity. Employees are simply given a handbook to set them off on “a fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you.”

Not that they work alone, of course: it’s up to each innovator to create and enthuse their project teams. The approach seems to be paying off: Half-Life, one of Valve’s games, has won more than 50 ‘Game of the Year’ awards and its social entertainment software Steam is available in 237 countries with 35 million active users.

A purposeful workforce doesn’t necessarily translate into a purposeful brand nor into a brand with the higher ambition of bringing purpose to people more widely. But then it’s a missed opportunity.

So how has a brand helped you find something you desire? Drop us a note or tweet to us at #BrandDesire to win a copy of The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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