At my junior school, the teacher used to give us a word of the week, on which we all had to focus our attention
Something very similar seems to be happening with marketing right now. Last week's word was ‘story’: without a fascinating, engaging narrative you really couldn't, it seemed, sell anything. Now, the buzz term is ‘purpose’: your customers need to know ‘why’ you are offering the product or service you want them to buy.
For a wine producer, this might involve rescuing an under-appreciated grape variety, returning an estate to its former glory or maybe simply following a dream.
What your purpose must not under any circumstances be, however, is ‘commercial’. You can choose from a wide range of motives, but for at least some of the chatterati, profit is not included in the items on the menu. As I discovered recently when the conversation turned to a product that has just been launched that involved blending wine and tea. Why would anyone even dream of doing this? Were they trying to invent an improvement on either beverage? Or to offer some kind of positive contribution to the tea or wine industry? Or did the people behind the product simply want to make some money?
My knee-jerk response was brutally frank. I said that I really didn't care.
To be more precise, my caring comes a long way behind my feelings about the appeal of the product to its target audience. I’m not a fan of White Zinfandel, but I’m glad that Bob Trinchero, the boss of Sutter Home came up with the idea of making sweet pink wine as a way to make use of large volumes of excess Zinfandel grapes. If it had not been for that decision, millions of people would not have bought and drunk a beverage they enjoyed—plus a lot of old vines that are now producing rich red wine would almost certainly have been uprooted. And, of course, and Sutter Home (and competitors who followed its example) wouldn’t have made lots of money, employed lots of staff and paid taxes that helped pay for schools and policemen. What’s not to like? Apart of course from the sugary pink liquid in the bottles, but nobody is forced to drink it.
Likewise, I don’t consume a lot of Bailey’s Irish Cream, but I happily concede that the idea of blending a dairy product with whiskey was a stroke of product development genius that found a profitable home for Irish dairy products and whiskey.
Of course, finding a home for excess grapes, cream or spirits is not the kind of purpose producers tend to talk about – any more than they like telling journalists about the need to satisfy the aspirations of their shareholders. But these were the reasons behind those two incredibly successful brands.
Other products owe their existence to happy accidents. The microwave oven was created by a radar engineer who noticed that a chocolate bar melted in his pocket when he was working with a powerful radio antenna. Viagra was originally a treatment for chest pains.
Picasso reportedly produced some 50,000 artworks. Did they all really benefit from the same level of ‘purpose’? How many other artists’ pictures or pieces of music were produced through gritted teeth in order to pay the rent or fulfil a contract?
To be fair, most of the finest things ever to have been created by human beings – including lots of efforts by Picasso – almost certainly did benefit from some kind of admirable motive. But the reverse does not necessarily apply. There are countless artistic and commercial failures that are built on precisely the same kinds of good intentions as the ones used to pave the road to hell.
When Simon Baile bought back Oddbins, the UK wine retailer, in 2008, he was regaining control of a business his father had owned in the 1970s. It was a lovely family saga – or would have been if his time at the helm had not culminated in the collapse of the chain within three years. In any wine region, there are plenty of stories in which well-intentioned offspring have maimed the reputation of their forebears’ estates.
So, today, look around at the products and services you use, and ask yourself if you could name the purpose that lies behind each of them – beyond providing what the buyer wants, or ideally exceeding their expectations, and paying the producer’s bills. Would you rather drink a wine – or a blend of wine and tea – that tastes good but that was created for cynically commercial reasons? Or a disgustingly unsuccessful beverage that was made with the best will in the world?
If there really is a purpose behind your business that’s worth talking about, go ahead and share it. And if you can credibly reverse-engineer one – like fostering friendship (remember Coca Cola’s ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing… in perfect harmony’ advertisements?) – well, by all means do that too. Never forgetting the crucial importance of ‘credibly’. But, to be blunt, above and beyond any of this, just make something that people want to buy and think is good enough to buy again. And charge enough to be able to go on doing it.