If they were merely three cranks in a coffee shop, this wouldn’t matter. But Christensen is a vastly and deservedly influential professor at the Harvard Business School, Cook the cofounder of Intuit software, and, most distressingly, Hall is the "chief strategy officer" for the Advertising Research Foundation. Worse, what is now merely an article in the Wall Street Journal is soon to be an article in the Harvard Business Review. Can a book from HBSP be far behind?
The three wise men assert,
a simple rule has been forgotten. To build a product that people want, you need to help them do a job that they are trying to get done.
the marketer’s fundamental task is not so much to understand the customer as it is to understand what jobs customers need to do — and build products that serve those specific purposes.
I had a philosophy professor who, when confronted by nonsense he regarded as especially egregious, would put down his book, look away and close his eyes. Think of me so.
The "purpose brand" proposition is egregious nonsense. Brands, at their best, and among other things, bundles of meanings, some of them robust, some of them delicate, all of them poised to speak to one or more segments and to deliver unto them an understanding of not just what the product does but what it stands for, how it may be used, for whom it may stand, and where it is located in the larger scheme of things, commercial and cultural. (These values are not functions. They are values that create value.)
To reduce the brand to "purpose" is to dumb down the enterprise, diminish the art and science of marketing, beggar the consumer, and so displace the marketer, that our three wise men must be seen to conduct themselves as proverbial bulls in the china shop of marketing concept, method and action, destroying advances made over the 100 years.
Shakespeare was clear on this. When Lear is stripped of the markers of his standing, and told that he doesn’t really need them, he replies
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s." (2.4.264)
But not just Shakespeare takes umbrage. The social sciences once embraced and then quite emphatically repudiated the "purpose" approach to things. They called it "functionalism" and came to regard it as a violent act of reduction. Functionalism reduced complicated human artifacts to purposes they served. Thus did theory make us stupid. Functionalism obliged us to ignore much of what we knew to be true about the object of study.
Some costs of the Purpose Brand proposition: Puccini becomes entertainment, indistinguishable from Disney. There is no difference between time keep devices called Patek Philippe and Timex. Ford makes the same thing as Volkswagen. All business schools, mark you, Dr. Christensen, are pretty much the same. Intuit is only a couple of features different from Microsoft Money. Most of all, Mr. Hall, there is no longer any such thing as advertising strategy. Now, it’s sell the function all day long. (And to think that marketers and agencies actually fund the Advertising Research Foundation!)
The three wise men are a wrecking crew. They would have us forget the advances made by Trout, Ries, Levy, Kotler, Levitt, to name a few. They would commit the marketing professional to the cultural illiteracy now installed in the business school world They restore to usefulness a theory that is scorned in the rest of the academic world. But most of all they would will away some of the most interesting, most difficult, and, yes, most useful elements of the marketer’s responsibility.
Join with me now. Let us look away and close our eyes.
Christensen, Clayton M., Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall. 2005. It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid. Wall Street Journal. November 29, 2005; Page B2.
Shakespeare quote is approximate.