This was excellent. The part that interests me most here is how you describe the subtle uneasiness many (most?) of us feel when corporations communicate a "we're saving the day" message--usually to assuage our own complicated feelings and lack of agency as we watch the world blowing up around us. I'd love to hear you dive into that more deeply--that discomfort and where it can lead us.

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Thanks Margaret – yes I think that sense of 'lack of agency' is really widespread. (It's an odd twist in language that the collective term for branding/ad people is 'agency'.)

I get why people think we have more influence over corporations (who rely on our custom) than governments (where a single vote every few years often feels futile). But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more we disengage from politics, the worse it gets. And the more we turn to evangelical businesses, the more Adam Neumanns we get.

Aside from government, I'd like to see more focus on charities and non-profits – often feels like they've been elbowed out the way by companies and their purposes.

Lots to think about – thanks for reading and commenting.

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I think a big issue with holding non-profits as a solution is that they are often so bogged down in politics and poor management (because, ironically, a lack of profit-driven approach), they more often than not fail to deliver on their missions/objectives. Anyway, that's for another day :)

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Yes, definitely agree a lot of non-profits are bogged down in politics – a whole other dimension to this problem...

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Are you sure lack of profit drive is reason for poor management? Could it be lack of clarity and consensus on social objective (which is analogous to "profit" as their measure of success) could be why they get bogged down.

Tangentially, as I write that made me think of Rory Stewarts review in latest TLS on US govt...re: lack of managment and particularly, leadership... just awful.


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This reminded me there's a hugely entertaining essay on consumption by the late anthropologist David Graeber, encompassing St. Augustine, the Garden of Eden, Adam Smith, Deleuze, and so on, who noted in all of his research no one in the professional field had defined what they meant by "consumption". I get a similar feeling with "purpose", it's so broad and undefined, with added flaws and fakery.

Do we agree the purpose of a company is more than maximizing shareholder value (or profit, if not public)? If we do agree, and crucially, also take on board Friedman's critique of CSR/purpose, then together that begins to give us something to hold up when, for example, the US's "leading purpose agency", who are lauded by the industry, does some work for Uber/Team Bonesaw, and can compare that to NYC Taxi Drivers Coop, launched in May '21 and now the largest worker coop in the USA. "But it's a coop"...

Are private equity text-book profit-maximising companies structurally incapable of doing purpose? I can't help but feel distaste when purpose is measured by revenue, or 'return on purpose'. Why not simply express it in terms of how they helped solve the social problem itself. (Mark Fisher/K-Punk wrote a short evisceration of RED/Amex that sees right through all the cant). So to your point, should social problems just be the domain of NGO's, non-profits, government, all with democratic oversight.

But then, see this statement from ICI back in the '80's, “ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. Through achievement of our aim we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”

That's quite "purpose-y", yes? Like you say, this has been going on for a long time, but it soon changed to, “Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership". I share your reservations, but there is a problem with finance capital, and this inevitably filters through to day-to-day business.

Are we in this situation because of the Friedman doctrine and light-touch regulation? I'd argue we are, and business won’t voluntarily set boundaries, just as they won’t voluntarily decarbonize, and they actively lobby against regulations and new tax laws.

There's a hint of arguing for a return to Friedman. Can business fix the problems business has caused? Yet, you rightly point out, “rather than me being on the ‘trust capitalism’ side of the argument, I see advocates of brand purpose as the ones placing trust in corporations to solve the problems they create.” It's getting tautologous.

And, there’s an implied get-back-to-basics in the ‘stopped selling and started saving the world’ pov, and also embedded assumptions in what counts as ‘effective’, that needs unpacking.

You could make the observation that ‘purpose’ is something of a political Trojan horse advocating to change the internal cultures of corporations, as one move in making the political space for change, or, if you’re a cultural studies prof. you’ll scoff it’s a corruption & facile distraction from the “real work”.

WeWork is the perfect example of the latter!

And to your point about Dove et al, everything hinges on this statement, “I’d be happy to live in a world where Unilever sells lots of its products responsibly and sustainably with brilliant creative advertising”.

Responsibly and sustainably. There is a lot to unpack there, and I suspect we are soon going to be arguing more over net-zero and the fundamentals implicit within “green growth” versus “post growth”, where perhaps notions of purpose is going to get folded in.

We are at some inflection point, it is fascinating, that questions of political economy are being discussed in a business context, & truthfully, all money is political money, so it’s about time. We’re experiencing significant upheavals in the social bargain, for most of us probably the first time in our working lives.

Purpose is some form of negotiation in media res, we need to understand where it came from, why we ever started using it, and was it says about our assumptions.

It might not be the best way to think about the responsibilities of business in the age of the Anthropocene, beyond simply selling stuff, in which case we had better develop better terms, and we should put market oversight in place e.g. https://influencemap.org for purpose washing, because you're right we can't rely solely on govt.


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Thoughtful and engaging post. It's sad to think that we must pathologize a child's learning approach to get any form of additional help, which itself often is aimed at conforming with the norm of standard learning expectations and behaviour.

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