Credit: Originally featured in Contagious


Thomas Kolster took a hatchet to his beliefs about brand activism when he realised it had become a performative shouting match, and discovered the missing link between purposeful advertising and sales.

I used to believe in purpose. And its chest-thumping cousin: brand activism. I’ve applauded and encouraged brands to fight injustices or struggle for our planet. Good Lord, I even wrote a book about it calIed Goodvertising (Thames & Hudson 2012). But I have to take a hatchet to my beliefs because history is not siding with our current approach to purpose. One month ago, a police officer had barely lifted his knee from George Floyd’s neck before every brand and CEO was screaming, “BLM, BLM, BLM!” I see the same pattern repeat itself every time. Whether the climate, ocean plastic or diminishing bee populations – it’s always the same. Purpose shouldn’t be a crusade to show which brand cares or sacrifices most.

Consider: If you kick open the door to a bar and shout, “I’m the world’s best lover!” no one will believe you. Why would it be any different as ‘a world saviour’?

Take what Patagonia is saying: ‘We’re in business to save our home planet.’ It sounds like self-important navel gazing from a company that essentially sells T-shirts to young men stuck in pokey Brooklyn apartments wanting to feel outdoorsy. But Patagonia can get away with it, because they’re a legacy brand that can break the rules. For almost any other brand, you are setting yourself up for failure and criticism if you do the same. If you try to fly like Superman, you will eventually fall like a can of soup. Daily, I witness failures and missteps, and more and more people growing critical towards brands playing heroes.

There are simply too many Mother Teresas

When every brand is pitching itself as Mother Teresa or Gandhi – who can be believed? Every brand can claim to have a big role to play in your life as their burning ‘why’. But if you can’t see or feel the outcome, it’s another broken promise. What brand has changed your life for the better? Taught you something new? Made you healthier? Sparked new thinking? Probably not many. My list was very short, which proves there is plenty of space for brands to play a meaningful role in our lives rather than simply shouting their world-bettering ambitions at us like a Pope on speed.

Less about buying, more about becoming

Wearing a T-shirt decrying ocean plastic is the easiest thing in the world. It demands almost no effort. Being generous cannot be bought; it’s something you earn through time and effort. During the pandemic, we’ve seen people embrace a reality where it’s less about buying and more about realising dreams, goals and ambitions. It’s about guitar lessons, yoga, community work, baking and even knitting. I’ll argue we’re heading towards a post-purpose marketplace, where people are no longer buying what you make – or why you make it, but instead who you can help them become. It’s all about the difference you can enable in someone’s life.

Patagonia can claim to be ‘in business to save our home planet,’ but compare that to a statement from a Danish organic food box delivery service, Aarstiderne. Their mission is spreading ‘the joy of organic produce and great tasting meals.’ As a customer, I’m improving my cooking and learning how to make great tasting organic vegetarian meals. I’m thankful for the new-found cooking skills, which I can enjoy and share with friends. I don’t actually buy their organic produce. I buy who Aarstiderne helps me become: A better plant-based cook. We don’t need more brands preaching, we need coaches who can help us achieve our goals or overcome obstacles.

Change begins with asking, who can you help people become?

If we are to create change, we have to take a new view on leadership. It’s a move from “why” your brand matters to understanding how you can help me achieve ‘who’ I want to be. Very few brands have been able to bridge the purpose gap and get people to move from buying into the purpose to actually buying the product. The intention is there, but action doesn’t follow.

After years of advising leaders and brands on purpose, I finally realised what the missing link was: The very people you are supposed to serve and consequently motivate. I looked to coaching methodologies and psychotherapy to understand how to move people from inaction to action, from unfulfilled to fulfilled. One simple but essential question helped spark the needed change, ‘Who can you help me become?’ People are no longer buying marketing messages or a brand’s good-willed approach; they’re looking for a personal change. Anyone can sell them things, stories or identity, but very few brands can help people achieve their goals. It’s moving the relationship from transactional to transformational, helping people be more, do more, see more, experience more!

Your brand’s dreams versus my dreams

I did one commissioned study comparing well-known purposeful commercials like Budweiser’s ‘Wind Never Felt Better’ with transformational commercials like Always’ famous ‘Like A Girl’. The findings were clear: People are 29.5% more motivated to act on transformational messaging. It’s dangerous to climb the purpose pedestal and put on the hero’s mantle. And it’s even more treacherous to put on a balaclava and behave like an activist. I realised years ago how difficult it is to create change. We are our own biggest barriers to the change we want to see in our lives – and this is where brands have a truly meaningful role to play. Every brand can claim to be diverse, but the outcome I can feel and appreciate, is a brand that has helped me overcome some of my own biases.

Dear brands, don’t be activists, instead turn people into the activists of their own lives. WHO focuses on the role you can play in people’s lives; enabling their beliefs and dreams, whereas WHY focuses on your organisation’s beliefs and dreams.

You tell me, which sounds better?

Thomas Kolster is a branding and sustainability professional of more than 18 years’ standing. He’s advised Fortune 500 companies, small start-ups, governments, agencies, and non-profits. He’s the founder of the global Goodvertising movement that’s inspired a shift for the better in advertising. His new book is The Hero Trap (2020).


© 2020 Thomas Kolster. All Rights Reserved.

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