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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

27 September 2022 - CISL Fellow, and Co Convenor and Head Tutor of the Sustainable Marketing, Media & Creative course, Dr Victoria Hurth discusses the conflict and opportunity in the relationship between marketing and purpose. Will the development of purpose-led marketing practices help lead the organisations and society to a positive future, or will marketing undermine the concept of purpose and further erode trust? 

As the pressure to align organisations with a sustainable future builds, marketing, media and creative skills become central to transitioning market offerings and shifting our mental and physical consumption habits. This is a creative innovation challenge for solutions that ensure that our quality of life tomorrow can be higher than today, securely within the limits of the vital social and environmental systems we depend on - and in a way that the company can keep it up.  

The transformation to a sustainable future will therefore require us, as marketers and creatives, to recognise our position of influence in the economy and society, and to use this and all our tools to drive system, organisation and behaviour change.  

Having taught generations of marketers over the years, I know intimately the optimism and keen energy that the young (and not so young) bring to their studies. This is not surprising when more than 70 years of marketing research tells them that marketing sits at the nexus between a firm and its stakeholders – translating and designing value and relationships.  

I’ve watched these same students go on a placement year and realise that this amazing power and potential is most likely to be funnelled into one overarching, but often unstated type of value generation – profit maximisation for the firm. Their carefully planned marketing strategies could be overturned at any moment by quarterly reporting that demands an uptick in sales. Internally marketers have been observed to have lost a lot of their strategic influence and externally they can be seen as real baddies.  

Luckily for today’s graduates there are an increasing number of companies and brands that are stating their tangible ambitions to become purpose-driven. As brand guardians, we might be familiar with using ‘purpose’ as language to discuss a brand vision, promise, ambition, strategy or mission statement. However, organisational purpose is much more than brand identity or discrete positive action, and if properly implemented and adhered to, purposeful principles can have wide-reaching influence.   

Purpose works to fix fundamental misalignments in the economy to pivot us towards a sustainable future – one where innovating to ensure long-term wellbeing for all of us is the number one problem on the table. In doing so the company plays its role, along with investors and regulators, to overcome regulatory and market failures to create a sustainable economy. Capturing as much financial income as possible in the hope that this automatically equates to the firm doing its best job for society is put to bed – instead this is replaced by explicitly ensuring that a company is doing its best job by anchoring all its efforts to an optimal strategic contribution to long-term wellbeing for all. The motivation to be profitable and grow is in service to this meaningful purpose. This helps unlock the potential of people to buy, work for and invest in organisations that play a proactively positive role in the world. The shift to being purpose-driven is therefore not a fad that will eventually peter out but perhaps the most vital operational tool we have to urgently make sustainability a reality.   

Despite its promise, a sad fact remains that when people think of purpose, they might consider the companies that have jumped on the bandwagon – clever creative teams presenting a veneer of being purpose-driven, but the company demonstrating nothing of the kind. Hence for many ‘purpose’ is just another tool of marketing to get us to buy more stuff.   

This level of mistrust about purpose, the very deepest aspect of a firm’s identity and motivations – its reason to exist – is particularly harmful for society and companies. Trust in organisations plummets further (2022 Edelman Trust Baromenter) and citizens further feel the market is rigged to make us feel good about consumption behaviour which is in fact destroying our collective wellbeing. That is a big problem for all of us when business is core to positively transforming that very consumption – and to achieve that depends on trust. Ironically those who suffer as much as anyone in the purpose-washing malaise are the marketers who want to be part of the solution not the problem.  

So, which could prevail? Will purpose be the saviour of the marketing discipline or will marketing destroy the concept of purpose?   

These discussions are squarely in the room for the diverse executives joining CISL’s new Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative course. Over eight weeks, and with guidance from expert faculty and industry leaders, you will be equipped with skills and strategies to re-align the purpose of marketing, media and creative to support the long-term wellbeing of all people and the planet.  

Learn how to inspire and reignite the potential for brands and creative roles to enable positive change. 

For more information visit the Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative course page.

About the author


Dr Victoria Hurth works at the intersect of academia and hands-on business to help companies transition to be drivers of long-term wellbeing for all (sustainability). She works extensively with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership where she is a Fellow, and she engages in cutting edge thought leadership as a Visiting Fellow of The University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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