Friday June 29th 2018

We’re a long way from peak purpose

 

As the rose hangovers from last week fade, in our industry one debate refuses to go away – is purpose dead? While ideas like Savlon’s Healthy Hands Chalk are rightly lauded, more generally the feeling seems to be that ‘peak purpose’ is behind us. Mark Ritson is lacing up his dancing shoes ready to do a little jig on its grave.

 

At St Luke’s we’ve always believed in business as a force for change, so naturally we couldn’t disagree more. Yes, cynical ‘awards bait’ from brands that have no genuine interest in getting noticed beyond the marketing community can make us question this approach. But the rewards that follow when brands drive cultural change is not going away. Why? Because its success isn’t based on what’s trendy on awards juries.  It is based on fundamental human truth…

 

In his book, psychologist Martin Seligman argues that our species is misnamed.  Home sapiens would be better labelled homo prospectus. Why? Because what separates us from other life on earth is not our wisdom, but our ability to think prospectively, to imagine the future. Other animals act based on the here and now. Even when they appear to plan they do so out of instinct, not foresight. When squirrels store nuts for winter, there’s no rodenty mental trade-offs between instant gratification and future sustenance. They live in the present, and act on instinct.

 

We, and we alone, can picture the future, and act accordingly. Our society is built on shared understanding of what other humans will do in the distant future. We make sacrifices today because we can imagine rewards tomorrow. We will pay money into pensions every month because the future vision of being old and poor is vivid and not something we fancy. And because, while we might not love banks, we believe that 40 years from now they’ll cough up. We engage in certain behaviours, and abstain from others, because we can picture the consequences. This is the stuff that economies, legal systems, and religions are made of.

 

Seligman goes on to explain that our giant brains have evolved to become prediction engines. We don’t process every input, we sift through it looking for the unexpected, for things that can tell us what is happening next. We are hard-wired to look for change. That change might be imminent – the rustling bushes that suggest a predator lying in wait. Or it may be distant – the frown on a boss’s face that suggests your next pay review might be disappointing.

 

So we’re spending most of our time subconsciously asking two questions:

 

What is changing?

 

What does that mean for my future?

 

That’s why we pay more attention to the people, the events, and information that tells us change is coming. If someone is setting some sort of agenda, suggesting that things can be done differently, we sit up, notice and plan accordingly. The sensible, centrist political candidate proposing ‘business as usual’ doesn’t capture many eyeballs. But that fringe candidate that no-one is taking seriously, spouting radical ideas from the far extremes of the political spectrum? They’re harbingers of change we can’t help but notice, whether we want that change or not.

 

It is the same with brands. Some represent comforting ideas that reassure us that life will continue the way it has always done.  And there are bold ideas that push life forward. Brands that are pushing for change in the world will always get an unfair share of our time and attention. If they stand for an idea that sets the agenda, our brains can’t help but log it and start to mull it over.

 

Birra Moretti inspires us to make time for the people who matter.

 

Old Mout challenges us to live adventurously.

 

Very unlocks possibilities where they were out of reach.

 

So when a brand has a genuine purpose – a desire to change the world in a way that makes total sense of what that brand does, not a token piece of CSR – people engage.  Fewer Lions might get handed out in the south of France in future years for these campaigns, because our industry is fickle. But homo prospectus is not. And so forward-thinking brands will always reap the rewards of standing for an idea that pushes life forwards.

 

You can agree with these ideas. You can live your life by them. Or dispute them, even fight against them. But millions of years of evolution make it pretty unlikely you’ll ignore them.