Q&A with Thomas Kolster on his second book, in which he urges companies not to fall into an overcrowded ‘purpose’ space and empower customers to find their transformational purpose

Thomas Kolster is also known as Mr ‘Goodvertising’ thanks to his first book of the name that championed purpose. The author, speaker and marketing activist who is on a mission to put people and planet first, has just released his second book ‘The Hero Trap’. In it, he urges companies not to fall into an overcrowded ‘purpose’ space and empower customers to find their transformational purpose, instead. Here are some excerpts from an interaction with the author.

You speak of the ubiquity of ‘do good’ messages from organisations. Can you cite a couple of categories where the brand purpose has arguably lost relevance to consumers (more than others)?

Purpose has become somewhat misused and over-communicated. What found in the research we did for the book was that the purpose today is simply overarching. I think this broadly goes across categories. Today you cannot go into a supermarket without the products on the shelves pitched like it’s out of heaven – here’s Gandhi, here’s another saint, here’s Mother Teresa. I think this is particularly true in the FMCG sector and less so in B2B. That said, it is becoming more and more prominent in the B2B sector because if you see the CEOs of B2B companies, they all talk about how their company is doing good to the world. So this problem of over-communicating purpose is overarching and across categories.

The book talks of enabling a customer to find his/her purpose: is this again a road to one-ness? Will every brand start doing this, or have they already?

When we did my first book Goodvertising, purpose was the in-thing. A lot of research was done in 2010 for that. It was hard to find a truly purposeful company. We had a few but they were exceptions. Today, purpose has become extremely mainstream. What I see again and again is that these brands run into the hero trap and like to pitch themselves as the real superhero. Back then, it made sense to go beyond and differentiate oneself from what every other brand was doing. But today when everyone is doing it, the real endgame of it is different. It’s not about outdoing each other; it’s about whether you can help the customer find purpose. When an organisation or leader takes this approach, I as a customer can feel that outcome; I can experience that transformation. Nike is motivating runners who get that benefit. In the book I have this company called Aarstiderne. They do these boxes with farm-fresh produce, which comes with recipes. They’ve taught me to cook vegetarian, they have taught me to appreciate what the Earth gives with plant-based cooking. Or the health insurance company Discovery, who incentivise people to live healthier. They are proving again and again that you can be successful by doing that. That’s the core difference.

The book makes a reference to a retailer who stopped selling Nike (in response to the flag controversy) and went bankrupt. Is the pursuit of purpose something smaller businesses should navigate more carefully? And if yes, are larger brands at an advantage?

No, it is the same for everyone. Why I mentioned that example is, I don’t believe in brand activism. I don’t agree that you sacrifice everything for a belief in something because that is not sustainable business. Clients will ask you if you are going far enough. Take the example of Patagonia. They say they are ‘In the business to save our home planet’. If they were in the business of saving our home planet, do they really need to sell all those T-shirts and backpacks? Essentially, they are selling T-shirts to those who want to feel a little outdoorsy, but are stuck in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

That’s what I criticise: the fact that you pitch yourself as that world-saving hero. And when you do that, you will fall down like a can of soup. It’s the same with small brands and big brands. If we look at a lot of founders’ stories, it’s about how they came up with a product to solve something that was wrong with the world. Another example in the book is District Vision, who make running glasses. Their transformational promise to customers was very simple. It’s a small company, which helped customers understand the transformational benefit of that product (forthemselves). It positioned itself as a company that plays a meaningful role in their lives.

It will not be a one-size-fits-all. But how should a start-up inculcate transformational purpose at inception? Is this likely to meet with resistance on the investor table or help them grow faster?

No, I don’t think it will meet with resistance. A start-up that can claim that the business is playing a meaningful role in peoples’ lives (and does), is the one that does well on customer satisfaction and long-term business success. They solve a fundamental human challenge; people need help. It would make a better pitch towards investors because, what you’re saying is that you’ve looked at the competitive landscape and found a niche where you could make a difference.

What also came out of the research was that some of the most valuable companies like Nike and Apple, do have a transformational promise at heart. Apple said ‘Think Different’. Even a five-year-old today can hover an i-phone in his or her hand, and be creative and be free.Take Blinkist for example. They provide knowledge infusion from business books in 15 minutes. For those of us who don’t have the time to read these books, it offers a brilliant, smart way of feeling smarter. Making people feel smart in a short time is a very smart, cool void to fill.

Whether you’re new or old, small or big, this transformational purpose that you can put in the hands of the customer, is what can lead to long-term growth.

Also read: Book Extract – The Transformative Promise

See original interview here


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