And stop calling me stupid

HammerYesterday, in It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid, Clayton Christensen, Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall endeavored to set the field of marketing back a hundred  years.

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. 

16 thoughts on “And stop calling me stupid

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  3. Tom Asacker

    Here you go Grant:

    “O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” (2.4.264)

    And I wonder if the “purpose brand” is blow back in response to billions of dollars being wasted by businesses as they attempt to SIMPLY sell the sizzle with advertising, sponsorships, events, viral nonsense, etc. al la Carly (NEW YORK ( — Hewlett-Packard co. is reviewing up to $2 billion of ad business as it sweeps away the corporate-branding vision favored by the deposed CEO Carly Fiorina.)?

    Perhaps we should meet somewhere in the middle.

  4. Grant

    Francois, that’s Corante solidarity. Best, Grant

    Tom, thanks very much for the complete quote, where the hell did I get “elsewise?” That’s interesting about HP. I kind of liked their ads on dynamism. And frankly I would gladly have taken some fraction of $2 billion to keep up the good work. But that’s just me. Thanks! Grant

  5. MT

    “Ford makes the same thing as Volkwagen. ”

    Are you sure you’re reading them right? (note I haven’t read them at all)

    Couldn’t they be telling us to think with the same depth and subtly as ever about why a person specifically likes his or her _VW_, but now they are telling us to see the satisfaction of that “why” as the marketer’s purpose. Contrast this with a marketer not caring why customers might like the product once they have made it part of their lives (not interviewing happy customers) and caring instead chiefly what got people to buy it in the first place–e.g the bikini beauties playing vollyball in the TV commercial–and what might work even better–totally naked beauties playing vollyball in the TV commercial. If that was the editorial sentiment, I would wholly approve. ‘Course, I’m not in marketing.

  6. CarolGee

    Gray automatons march in lockstep; their perfect formation is certainly functional and gets the job of “here-to-there” done. But just give me a marching band with twirlers and flags and high stepping tuba players. I want what I buy to have some distinction, some artistry, some quirkiness, even. I join you in “look away and roll eyes.”

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  9. Mary Schmidt

    Funny you should post this – I was just writing a blog entry talking about Hamburgers and target marketing…McDonalds and 21 both sell hamburgers…which serve the purpose of ending hunger…but there it ends. A “brand” is everything you do – not just what your product (in theory) enables a customers to do. And, customers will use hammers (for example) for purposes the hammer makers never thought of…

  10. steve

    Yikes. I’m afraid I’m more in line with the Phillistines here, and I especially want to align myself with MT’s remarks above–a searching analysis of the “value drivers” of a particular product will often turn up subtle performance dimensions that are easily overlooked by a more superficial analysis. I would include among those dimensions aesthetics and associated meanings. Part of the “job” of an iPod used to be to signal hipness (obviously no longer possible given mass diffusion)–I think Grant protests too much.

    Clearly, which drivers matter–the “tangible” vs. the “soft” ones–varies by product category or market segment. Since people can’t tell beer apart in taste tests, they must be choosing brands, to a large extent, based on associated social and private meanings. Advertising of the beer sort is basically a technology for attaching associations to objects. But not very many products or services are such pure examples of meaning manipulation. Customer perceptions of cleaning effectiveness and convenience heavily influence detergent sales, and customer calculations of total cost per seat affect software choices.

    Finally, a niggling point about intellectual consistency. I thought Levitt’s notion of thinking broadly about what business you’re in and what the customer wants your product to do is pretty similar to the purpose-based product. If so, how are Christensen, et al contradicting rather than backing up this classical wisdom?

  11. Grant

    Steve, thanks for the comment, I like the way you have crafted this but there is absolutely nothing about the WSJ article in question that suggests that the three wisemen mean to include “performance dimensions,” among them “aesthetics and associated meanings.” At all. No, I think these guys really are trying to awaken the monster of functionalism…and darn it, if we the villagers don’t do something we will soon have clients and students who insist on it as the new gospel. Thanks, Grant

  12. Davinder Jawanda

    Effective branding can allow the provider to own the customer’s perception of the offering’s core value. For instance, lifestyle or purpose brands can obtain best of breed status because their core value is *perceived* as the most productive solution for the customer’s need. This dominant position allows a niche provider to expand the offering’s scope over time to effectively compete in new growth markets. The resulting threat to larger incumbents also allows the provider to position itself for a lucrative takeover by the incumbent.

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