Who Gives a Crap, Patagonia and Thankyou Group: Why purpose-led marketing is excellent, but not enough

By Dan Monheit, originally published on Smart Company 14.12.20

The call for more considered, long-term thinking has swept through the marketing industry all but unchallenged in the last decade.

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It’s understandable when we pause to consider that we’re part of the Earth’s most future-focused population yet.

A 2018 study conducted by Deloitte surveyed more than 6,000 individuals across different generations, races, genders, income levels and locations, and found the growing importance of a brand’s ethical and social impact in shaping opinions, particularly among millennials and generation Z.

It’s clear that many of us, and many of our customers, are deeply — and rightfully — concerned with longer-term, bigger-picture issues, stretching far beyond what we’ll eat, drink, wear or do today.

Whether it’s social justice, climate change, mental health, equality of opportunity, the elimination of poverty or any of a dozen other highly worthy pursuits, many of us have decided these things are so important, we’ve put them at the heart of our brands, our businesses and our comms.

And while this is fantastic — and I mean that sincerely — I also believe (with the research behind me) that this long-term, purpose-driven marketing is EBNE. Meaning, ‘excellent, but not enough’. Not by a long shot.

It’s hard to not be swayed by the inspiring case studies and meteoric growth of brands such as Thankyou Group, Who Gives a Crap and Patagonia.

But if you think the genius shared between these three brands is their commitment to a higher-order social purpose, you’re missing the real genius.

What these brands understand incredibly well is the notion of temporal discounting — a concept from the field of behavioural science whereby we reduce the value of things that are further into the future, while overvaluing those in the here and now.

The more distant and hazier a future benefit is (for example, the end of climate change), the more rapidly we discount it, making it easier to trade for things that bring us short term happiness (such as saving $2).

Temporal discounting has its fingerprints across almost every bad, short-term decision you’ve ever made.

That midnight whisky with friends at the bar when you’ve got a 7am business breakfast, the dessert you ate despite trying to slim down for your brother’s wedding, that handbag you bought on sale despite your intentions to be hardcore saving for a home deposit, all the way to the forced need for superannuation savings in this country because, without it, we’d blow the lot and more in the here and now.

What temporal discounting clearly demonstrates is that thinking long term isn’t motivating or valuable enough for humans on its own. We need short term gratification too.

Before Thankyou’s bottled water, there was no drink on the planet that let you walk down the street with a mini-billboard that said: ‘Yes, I’m hydrating, but I’m also a decent person. I’m interested in bringing clean water to those who don’t have it.’

The brilliance of this short-term value signalling has now been extended into our homes and offices, where we have the option of erecting dozens of other miniature billboards in the form of soap and hand cream dispensers that tell anyone who’s visiting the exact same thing. We are good. We are wholesome. We have pledged our allegiance to something great.

Again, I mean that sincerely.

Before Who Gives a Crap, there was no brand of toilet paper that cafes were proud to display along their corridors. There were no brands of toilet paper that people would deliberately and lovingly post photos of on social media, or build special shelves in their guest bathrooms to serve as miniature display stands for the artwork that Who Gives a Crap toilet paper wrapping has become.

Yes, Who Gives a Crap’s message, purpose and business model is incredible, but its packaging and the short-term signalling that this packaging has allowed businesses and individuals to do — to demonstrate quickly, easily and fashionably that they support high sanitation standards for all — is the real genius.

And Patagonia. It’s a business with an environmental mission and track record that is honestly and appropriately the gold standard for all.

But if that mission, track record and impact were enough, why do they print the logos on the outside?

They do it because in reality, just saving the world is not enough.

Because just like Thankyou and Who Gives a Crap, Patagonia also needs an easy way to let everybody tell their friends they’re saving the world too.

While having a higher purpose for your brand might feel important, it is almost impossible to get customers onboard without a short-term kicker, such as signalling, that meets a need in the here and now.

And herein lies the opportunity.

I hope businesses continue to chase down big, hairy, audacious goals that improve the planet for everyone. I just hope they also recognise the need for short-term incentives to make it happen.

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