Your purpose is a joke

—The best purpose-led campaigns—like those from Dove, Wendy’s and, most recently, Fiat—start with a clear brand conviction, says Trevor Thomas. Otherwise, it’s like a punchline without a set up—

For the past decade or so, “purpose” has been all the rage in marketing. Purpose ads. Purpose acts. Purpose brands.

Marketers and their agencies have been tripping over themselves trying to become the next great purpose-led case study, causing a massive shift in industry award shows. While they still talk about effectiveness, show after show rewards “purpose” over business.

The genesis of this transformation can likely be traced to Dove’s “Real Beauty.” The campaign officially launched in 2004, but really took off with “Real Beauty Sketches” in 2013.

Let’s be honest, though: Dove’s “Real Beauty” is a joke. A beautiful, perfectly constructed joke.

Allow me to explain.

While “Real Beauty is lauded for its purpose, what truly makes it sing is the campaign’s conviction.

Purpose. Conviction. Oh goodie, the strategist opened his big book of brand terminology.

Bear with me. The distinction is important. The relationship even more so.

Conviction is what you stand for—what you believe in. It may be about the way things exist today, or how you believe things should be; either way, it sets up your vision of the world. And that vision is not something everyone will—or should—agree with, because if everyone already agrees with your conviction, it’s not much of a conviction, is it?

Purpose, on the other hand, is the role you’ll play in bringing your belief to life. It’s why you exist. It’s the logical extension of your belief, but should build upon your vision in a natural but surprising way.

So, while there is a clear and important distinction, the two are inextricably linked.

They are a joke: the conviction is the premise. The purpose is the punchline.

Without a punchline, a premise is at best an interesting observation. Remove the premise, and the punchline won’t have a whole lot of punch.

As the great Chris Rock once said, if a comedian’s great jokes aren’t working it’s likely because “the audience doesn’t understand the premise.”

Case in point: “…to get to the other side.”

What makes Dove work? The belief that beauty is not defined by shape, size, or colour. It’s authentic. Unique. Real. The strength of this conviction lies in its firm stance. Is it a belief shared by all? Absolutely not. Which makes it an invitation to believers, while creating an opportunity for the brand to persuade those who may not presently be on side.

From this conviction, it derives this purpose: Dove exists to redefine beauty standards and help everyone experience beauty and body image positively. It’s a perfectly good purpose, but without the premise, it lacks the strong point of view that has made Dove’s work so powerful.

As we’ve move further and further from the glory days of “Real Beauty,” we find countless brands making this exact mistake, trying to write award-winning punchlines, without first locking in an ironclad premise.

This will affect a campaign’s ability to connect with audiences, as the conviction is what allows people to understand what you stand for. Without a firm belief, it is very difficult to develop shared beliefs. And shared beliefs are what create connection and loyalty—both human and brand.

Rather than focus on the negative, though, I’d like to instead highlight some work that I feel are true purpose campaigns due to the strength of their respective convictions.

Wendy’s: “Fresh Never Frozen”

In early 2019, Fortnite was a seemingly unstoppable force in both gaming and culture. When Wendy’s learned that there was a burger joint in the game that had freezers in their kitchens, it sent Wendy (or a character with a similar look) into the game to challenge players to destroy as many freezers as possible.

Why? Because Wendy’s believes fresh is always better than frozen. A glorious premise, as it plants you firmly in the world its created, but leaves ample space for a surprising punchline. (Disclosure: this campaign was created by my current employer, but long before I worked there.)

“Wait!,” you may be saying, “Wendy’s going into a video game to smash freezers isn’t purpose work. Purpose work must be emotional, sad even, and focused on righting societal wrongs!” I will concede that that’s where purpose work has gone, but, by definition, that is not where it need be.

A brand’s purpose, you’ll recall, is what it exists to achieve within the constructs of the world it creates in its conviction. If Wendy’s believes that fresh is always better than frozen, its purpose might be to eliminate frozen at every turn. Which this work does in spades—and in certain cases with spades.

Fiat: “Operation No Grey”

A tremendous recent example is Fiat’s “Operation No Grey,” which is built around the automaker’s bold promise to no longer make grey cars.

As an Italian brand, it exists to bring the joy, colours, and optimism of Italy to the world. Which is a lovely purpose that could lead to lots of interesting and—I’m certain—visually stunning work. But what snaps their punchline into focus is the crystal-clear, highly subjective, but unwavering premise.

Fiat believes the world doesn’t need another grey car.

You know who disagrees with Fiat? Millions and millions of people, based on the fact that 27% of global vehicles are either grey or silver. That’s just behind white and black vehicles, which represent another 55%.

Some might call it foolish to stand against 82% of the market, but that’s the allure of conviction. It draws a crowd, forces discussion, and encourages connection.

Perhaps most importantly, it brings meaning to purpose.

So, next time you’re looking for, or someone asks you for, “purpose,” give some thought to the importance of conviction, and remember that if you want your audience to react to your punchline, you need to ensure they understand your premise.

Trevor Thomas is vice-president, strategy, at VMLY&R in Toronto.