Does Marketing Have A Higher Purpose – Learn about the purpose

As proud as I am about my chosen profession of marketing, I would not immediately say that it typically has a “higher purpose.” A former client and now good friend once defined marketing like this: “It is the management practice that aims to sell more things to more people at a higher profit.” Sounds about right to me.

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But, there are some marketing practitioners who believe marketing can strive for something more. One in particular caught my imagination recently. I actually think he may be on to something. His name is James Stengel, and he is the former head of global marketing for P&G. Recently retired from P&G, Stengel seems to be striving for much more than playing golf and fishing. He is opening up a consultancy, writing a book (with the clever name of “Packaged Good”) and positioning himself as a guru around the idea of “purpose-based marketing.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject, Stengel described purpose-based marketing as ”defining what a company does — beyond making money — and how it can make its customers’ lives better.”

While I appreciated the sentiment of Stengel’s idea, my first reaction to his concept was kind of knee-jerk negative. I tend to dismiss most of these former corporate big wigs who anoint themselves as industry gurus to sell expensive (usually over-priced) consulting time. I initially saw Stengel’s purpose-based marketing idea in that vein, until I really started to think about it. The WSJ article includes some examples cited by Stengel of companies that are already using the concept to great effect – both in terms of stronger brands and sales and also improving people’s lives.

The more I considered the concept, the more the closet idealist/progressive/do-gooder in me started to warm up to purpose-based marketing. I think Stengel’s idea goes well beyond “cause-related marketing,” which too often was/is used by marketers as a fairly shallow way of generating more business while trying to look like a good corporate citizen. (Doing well by doing good.) I think Stengel’s purpose-based marketing is much more than that. It aims to tap into basic human values that are too often absent from business and marketing.

By defining a business, brand and the accompanying marketing around a “higher purpose,” companies can achieve a level of “connection” and “relevance” that has been largely out of reach to marketers. Given the deep cynicism that people have today about business, financial institutions and of course government, connecting your brand and company to some greater purpose can’t be a bad thing.

In the Journal piece, Jack Trout (formerly of Trout & Ries, the self proclaimed “fathers” of positioning), expressed skepticism about Stengel’s purpose-based marketing concept. Noting that consumers are “going for the cheaper guy now,” Trout said Stengel’s approach is “not going to save your bacon in this tough world.”

Perhaps not, Mr. Trout. But, even Wal-Mart, which has never been accused of being altruistic or high minded in its commercial practices, has in recent years embraced the cause of environmental sustainability as a defining “purpose” for its business. They did not just jump onto the green band-wagon because Al Gore suggested it, but because it made sense business-wise and marketing-wise. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has made environmental sustainability a cornerstone “purpose” of his leadership of the company.

I think purpose-based marketing could have special power in the PR profession. Many people who practice PR today have forgotten that a core element of the original definition of PR had to do with contributing to the “common/greater good.” Yeah, I know, you have not heard much of that from PR types of late, but it still is an important part of what PR originally stood for. By that classic definition, PR should closely align to Stengel’s vision of a new kind of marketing and communications that transcends business metrics by being about real values that matter to and benefit people and the world around us. In other words, striving for some higher purpose than just competing and winning in business.