Utopian Brands: Intention, Purpose and Result
Written by Zhuoyun Alice Li
November 05, 2017
In 1956, Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer undertook the great ambition of building a new capital for Brazil. At that time, architects sought deeper meaning in their work. They urged one another to strive for a higher sociological order, which scholars later referred to as the age of Utopian Architecture. Like many of his renowned peers, Niemeyer based this project on splendid humanitarian ideals and was guided by a noble purpose: to build a new kind of city that eliminated injustice and inequalities. After four years, the master plan was completed and the city was named Brasília. Looking down from above, the city is astonishing. But on the ground, it’s extremely uncomfortable to live there with immense paved fields and clear-cut city zones make it normal urban activities difficult; it doesn’t feel like it was designed for humans.
Niemeyer died in 2012 and is forever remembered by Brasília; which is now regarded as an enormously wrong turn in urban planning.
Now, we find ourselves in the era of Utopian Brands. Everlane, an e-commerce clothing company, introduced the Black Friday Fund to transform the biggest sale season into a giving and awareness-building opportunity. Soma Water, the sustainable pitcher brand, designed plant-based water filters and introduced SOMA X Charity. THINX, an underwear startup, is breaking social taboos, becoming a strong voice of feminism, and advocating for women’s health through their THINX Foundation. Little Sun is artist Olafur Eliasson’s mission to bring sustainable energy to everyone. And Tomás Saraceno’s airborne fossil-fuel-free art sculpture/project Aerocene was presented at the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference and the World Economic Forum.
People expect brands, celebrities, and artists alike to shoulder greater social responsibilities. Purposeful brands become more successful both in image and finance. The idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” first proposed by Simon Sinek in 2009, has quickly become a branding truism. Without a doubt, purpose is not just “the new black”; purpose has become like Wi-Fi access in a café: a basic expectation. If a brand doesn’t contribute to the cultural conversation, or at the very least try to pretend it cares about doing good in the world, its leadership position is in question. According to JWT Intelligence, 75% of US/UK millennials believe brands should act as cultural benefactors. Eighty-eight percent of US/UK millennials and Generation X believe brands need to actively "do more good" rather than simply "less bad." Today’s generation cares about a brand’s mission. If you don’t have a “why,” you probably won’t have a seat at the future table. As a result, more brands are becoming purpose-centric.
Being purpose driven has invaluable appeal, and also measurable consequences for companies that treat purpose casually offering inspiring promises regardless of whether they are in line with their practices. The founder of American Apparel, Dov Charney, claimed he valued workers’ rights—but was ousted under a cloud of sexual assault claims. This contributed to the diminishment of the brand to the point of being acquired in a bankruptcy auction by the Canadian-American manufacturer Gildan Activewear Inc.
Although Wells Fargo promised “building lifelong relationships one customer at a time,” it was revealed in August that employees had created up to 3.5 million unauthorized bank and credit card accounts since 2011—resulting in over 190,000 accounts with unexpected fees.
Uber also has been criticized for operating a toxic internal culture in order to deliver on its promise of being “everyone’s private driver.” Additionally former CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick was also criticized for participating in the Presidential Strategic Policy Council after Trump’s executive order barred entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries. The public — including millennials and early adopters, i.e. their biggest advocates — is committed to supporting companies that uphold standards that benefit humanity, and therefore demands that Uber holistically honors their higher social standard. Collectively, Uber’s missteps allowed competitors like Lyft to make significant inroads.
A failure of brand purpose may not be as far-reaching as a failure the size of a city like Brasília, but sometimes a brand purpose does have life-threatening consequences. Elizabeth Holmes, who founded Theranos at 19, aspired to revolutionize medical testing. She believed the experience of getting a blood test should be quick and easy; a simple prick of the finger instead of a needle in the arm could detect hundreds of diseases and, “change the world,” a phrase she often stressed. With a 50% stake in Theranos, Holmes was named by Forbes as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world in 2015. It was a beautiful story, one that hit all the points everyone wanted to believe. But the company’s fortunes changed fast. In October 2015, The Wall Street Journal published an investigation which questioned the accuracy of Theranos’ technology and lab test results. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the company’s process “posed immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.” Holmes’ value plummeted from $4.5B to nothing in the blink of an eye, and she recently surrendered her shares to investors in order to avoid lawsuits. Theranos' purpose initially drove its progress, however, its purpose was driven by vanity, and therefore was in vain.
Ultimately, we are all defined more by what we do than what we say. A claimed Communist sympathizer, Niemeyer supported the intent of Brasília to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, but the city’s design when in use contributed rise to an excessively high cost of living, and eventually it became a city for the rich. Urban planner Jan Gehl memorialized this reality by using “Brasília Syndrome” and “Helicopter Urbanism” to describe cities based on plans that look fantastic from above but don’t work at ground level; he also refers to those who advocate this approach as “bird shit architects” because they only care about the plan looking good from the air, dropping the results on the heads of unsuspecting, trusting citizens. We are fortunate to live in an era marked by many forms of disruption, and full of tools to help drive change. But when we—designers and brand custodians of every kind—make and market promises, we can aim for the sky as long as we remind ourselves that on the ground real people are on the receiving end, of the outcome. A purpose alone cannot save the world, but delivering on one truly might.