The Interplay Between Purpose-Driven Affinity and Expertise

I started noticing something about two years ago, but it was significant enough that I didn't want to be wrong, so I just watched it develop until it was clearly an issue. What I'm referring to is an artificial positioning around firms who are purpose-driven themselves...and want to work with purpose-driven companies or non-profits or orgs. There are many labels for this, but something else you see frequently is the mantra of "doing well by doing good" and so on.

What has emerged to serve this segment is a type of marketing / design / digital firm that would see themselves carefully aligned with that mission and almost in the trenches with their clients. Though I've never seen this tagline specifically, you could imagine seeing something like this:

We do good work for those who are doing good work in the world.

That sort of positioning feels good and it resonates with many prospective clients (and your team), but there are two problems with it:

  • There are a thousand firms claiming that space, and thus it has become a distinction without a difference.
  • It's a positioning built on an affinity (or solidarity) more than an expertise.

I want to be clear about something, though: I'm a huge believer in being purpose-driven and I welcome as much of it as we can. It's a good thing, but it is not a positioning, and that's what I fear is being misunderstood in the marketplace.

I want to explore the second one in that list, starting with how we got here. Many firms sprung up as activist firms during the presidential elections, and you began to see them in late 2007 and most of 2008, helping former president Obama's election. Once he took office in early 2009, there were about 40-50 firms that were all ready to work on new causes. Some key employees split off of those firms, too, and suddenly there were hundreds of firms working on social and political issues, and also fighting for other causes: accessibility, equality, SDOH (social determinants of health), etc. What these firms brought to the table was a double strength: they knew what they were doing, and they were personally aligned with the causes that their clients cared about. Many of these purpose-driven agencies have roots on the campaign trail, where alignment and skill are both important (you see political operatives who align but who aren't skilled get replaced all the time—those are two separate things).

Now fast forward fifteen years and you have quite a different situation. More principals than ever are uncomfortable with the crass commercialization of "stuff" and they want to leave a mark on their world through their work (in the past it was enough to do it through your life). And they are strongly nudged in that direction by a progressive employee base that looks to align their personal interests with the work that their clients do.

Here's the main point: while there is clearly a fair bit of expertise around the work of these firms, it's driven primarily by a sense of affiliation, and that's not a solid argument for positioning. When we hire someone in the professional services space, we care primarily about how good they are at what we are paying them for and not necessarily their political beliefs or social outlooks.

I help to position 60-70 firms every year through the Total Business Reset or the New Business Audit, and I'll frequently ask this question when I happen to be working with a firm in this category: "what do you know about persuasion or behavioral change or marketing principles that a firm who specializes in industrial marketing, for example, doesn't know?"

The response is almost always a pause and a smile, because they haven't thought about it like that before. When we dig deeper, we'll usually find some significant expertise, but up to that point the entire positioning is built on an affiliation ("I care about the same things that my client does") rather than an expertise.

An example of a firm in this space that claims the high ground of expertise is Marketing for Change. Yes, they do usually align with their clients' perspective about what the world needs, but the relationship is driven by the science and art of a model for behavioral change. This method is proprietary to them and so a prospective client has a much easier choice: "Here are two firms that care about the same things that we do, but this firm is bringing a more defined expertise to problem-solving."

Social responsibility is a worthy goal, but your clients deserve more than an alignment around those causes. They deserve really unique expertise, too. Many of these firms have it, but are doing a poor job of leading with that skill, leading with an aligned affinity, instead.

Red Fox Visual is an example of a firm that's apparently all in on the affinity perspective (I don't know the firm personally, but am just noting this from their website). Essentially they present themselves as a non-profit that cares more than anyone else.

I'm not sure this is a good trend. Purpose-led marketing feels great, and there is a place for it, but I don't want us to lead with that, but rather expertise. The alignment around purpose should, I think, be a secondary differentiator.

Purpose-driven marketing is a logical choice that your clients might make, but they deserve your expertise to fulfill that mission and not just an alignment with that purpose (another example and yet another). Like you, I am sympathetic with many causes that clients espouse, but I think we should lead with expertise rather than an affinity with that cause. If I'm going to hire an attorney to defend me, I want a really skilled one. And if he or she also believes in my cause, all the better, but that affinity is secondary or I'm going to jail.

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