Winning consumer trust in a post-purpose market
by Thomas Kolster, Founder, Goodvertising Agency

Purpose pioneer Thomas Kolster renounces his previous beliefs. He sounds a warning to brands not to engage in purpose-washing, and suggests they rather build consumer trust through transformational promises. 

12th October 2022 Read time: 5 minutes Watch time: 37 minutes

Brand purpose. It’s an ongoing debate. Many marketers believe that having a brand purpose is essential for companies to be successful. They say by having a brand purpose, businesses can show customers that they are about more than just selling products and services.

Thomas Kolster, on the other hand, suggests that brands are putting themselves at a disadvantage by promising things they can never deliver on. He is a marketing activist and advisor committed to making businesses prioritise people and the planet. He recently published a book on brand purpose titled Hero Trap: How to win in a post-purpose market by putting people in charge. He joined the What’s Possible Community sessions to share his perspective and talk about when purpose works well, and when it doesn’t. 

Brand purpose overload

A decade ago, brand purpose was the talk of the town, and Thomas was an advocate. There were purpose-led brands that could cut through the market easily. A decade later, thousands of brands try their hardest to jump on the purpose bandwagon.

Many brands advocate for ambitious ideals and present themselves as saviours of the planet. Thomas says this has produced a post-purpose market where brand purpose means very little.

One thing has remained constant in the marketplace: consumers want the brands they support to be authentic, transparent and genuine. They can see through virtue signalling, false advertising and greenwashing. 

When everybody claims to be a hero or a saint, who’s to trust?” Thomas asks. “When values won’t make it in the marketplace, what will?” 

Purpose vs Transformative promise

“Purpose is a lifebuoy brands use to try and build trust and meaning in people’s lives. I like to talk about meaningfulness. I think a lot of brands along the way lost a meaningful connection with people,” Thomas said.

He argues that businesses need to change their perspective on both their purpose and their brand in the world. He states that many brands have purpose statements to emphasise their own importance in the world.

Thomas says that business should instead make people their purpose, and rather develop a ‘transformative promise’. 

A transformative promise is really a promise about a change you can enable as a brand in people’s lives. I think that’s concrete, and authentic. When your purpose serves people’s lives, that’s when it becomes really magical”.

Thomas says once you empower people to become better versions of themselves through your brand, the growth is exponential. To pivot a business towards the people-powered marketplace and unlock their transformative promise, Thomas has four questions that businesses can begin to ask themselves:

  1. What is it you do?
  2. How are you unique in delivering products and services?
  3. Who can you help people become?
  4. When can you enable that change?

Thomas says it is the third question that businesses need to focus on most of all. Once a business asks how they can enable a change in a customer’s life, that’s when they get closer to really becoming meaningful to them.

How audiences react to transformative promises

Thomas recently conducted a study with GFK on how audiences react to transformative vs purposeful commercials. They found that transformative ads that focused on empowering people produced intriguing results.

When brands take the transformative approach, putting you at the centre of the commercial, it triggers people to want to know more about the brand. It inspires people to act. As marketers, what we want is for people to be inspired, take action, and think about their behaviours. I would claim this ultimately leads to sales,” he said.

Moreover, Thomas observes a generational divide in the responses to commercials. Baby boomers and Gen X audiences tend to respond positively to commercials espousing a company’s purpose. In contrast, Gen Z viewers are more drawn to ads with a transformative message angled toward their sense of self.

Thomas believes that this is an excellent learning opportunity for marketers. He says that audiences are looking for brands that can help them live more sustainably and are starting to switch from brands that talk too much about their own values. Considering the world is facing a climate crisis, helping customers adopt sustainable practices is not only good for the environment but also good for business.

People don’t want to feel like you’re a target group being spoken at. You want to be engaged, you want to be part of it, you want to have a say. That’s also what our research for the book revealed. Young people today expect to have a say,” Thomas concluded.