Hellmann’s, Terry Smith and the paradox of purposeful brands 

The beliefs that brands exist to make profit or serve a higher purpose don't have to conflict. You just need mental flexibility.

‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

Earlier this month, Terry Smith, the CEO of investment management company Fundsmith, published his annual letter to shareholders. In it, he took aim once again at Hellmann’s mayonnaise – the Unilever brand that has reported double-digit year-on-year sales growth for the last three straight years.

Having declared in January 2022 that, ‘A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot’, Smith doubled down this year by questioning whether the brand’s adoption of an anti-food-waste ‘purpose’ in 2018 could be causally attributed to the brand’s impressive sales. He went on to criticise Unilever soap brand Lux for describing its purpose as, ‘inspiring women to rise above everyday sexist judgements and express their beauty and femininity unapologetically’. In Smith’s own words: ‘When I last checked [soap] was for washing’.

It has been implied that this pugnacious approach is what political strategist Lynton Crosby might describe as a ‘dead cat strategy’ – an attention-grabbing diversion to draw the media’s gaze away from the uncomfortable fact that Smith’s fund fell in value by 13.8% in 2022. But regardless of whether Smith’s motivations are sincere or cynical, I have sympathy for his apparent exasperation with brand purpose. When taken at face-value, the suggestions that these brands and their mass-consumer product offerings fundamentally exist to eliminate food waste or to tackle endemic sexism appear to be faintly risible marketing fictions. These brands exist to be commercially successful. Organisations like Patagonia, now structured as a trust to ensure that all profits can be used to combat climate change and protect the planet, are in a vanishingly small minority.

And yet…

Loizos Hercleous, associate fellow at Oxford University, and David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap, set out in a 2020 BBC Worklife article the reasons why a ‘paradox mindset’ is so important for creativity and leadership. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald in his essay The Crack-Up, the authors draw the link between intelligence and the ability to conceive ‘multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously’ (quoting Harvard psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg). They call this a ‘paradox mindset’.

It is this type of paradox mindset that is useful when considering the area of ‘brand purpose’.

Ultimately, we all know that mayonnaise is for salads and sandwiches, just as we all know that soap is for washing. Similarly, if we are candid with ourselves, we understand that global brands like Hellmann’s and Lux fundamentally exist to be profitable. It would be a surprise if we were to learn that Unilever’s CFO or the majority of its shareholders wake up each morning and believe that, in essence, they are in the business of battling food waste or inspiring women to overcome everyday sexism. Instead, they are in the (perfectly respectable and morally palatable) business of making money.

The kicker is that, when it comes to brands in general and to mass-consumer brands like Hellmann’s and Lux in particular, making money is predicated on gaining a foothold in the minds of consumers. As Byron Sharp explains in How Brands Grow, these are not the ‘deeply committed’ and ‘rational’ buyers of outmoded marketing textbooks, but are instead ‘emotional’, ‘distracted’, ‘uncaring cognitive misers’. As David Hume states in A Treatise of Human Nature, ‘Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. Modern consumers understand the core functional benefits of established products, and are aware that there is general performance parity within today’s product categories. Creating marketing communications that simply assert the role of mayonnaise in salads and sandwiches, or soap’s ability to remove dirt, are unlikely to break through consumers’ baseline cognitive apathy.

However, by developing a brand purpose that speaks to broader socio-cultural issues (overconsumption, misogyny) whilst still staying close to the specific product and its role in people’s lives, brands can break through consumer apathy and build psychological connection. They are able to carve out tiny territories of interest and emotional inclination. This is particularly true when a brand’s purpose is prominent, potent and consistent across all communications, and that frequently relies on brand marketers internalising a narrative that the brand exists to serve its brand purpose.

Financiers like Terry Smith believe, justifiably, that brands like Hellmann’s and Lux exist to be commercially successful. However, that commercial success frequently hinges on marketers for the likes of Hellmann's and Lux believing that those brands exist to serve a higher purpose. The two beliefs are symbiotic, not antagonistic.

If, through the adoption of a ‘paradox mindset’, we can accommodate these two seemingly competing beliefs, we might more easily and painlessly be able to appreciate the role of ‘brand purpose’ in modern marketing communications and commercial performance.

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