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Kolster to Brands:
Tout Not How Great Your Product Is, But What It Can Help People Become

In his new book, The Hero Trap, Thomas Kolster says rather than promoting what’s good about their company or products, brands need to shift their focus to their customers — specifically, their brand’s role in helping its customers transform their lives.

Renowned speaker and author Thomas Kolster first caused a stir back in 2012 — when his first book, Goodvertising (Thames & Hudson, 2012), showed why advertising could, and should, be a force for good. After preaching the word of Goodvertising around the world for years, Kolster had a new realization — which takes a hatchet to his earlier beliefs around brand purpose.

In his latest book, The Hero Trap (Routledge, June 2020), Kolster issues a stern warning to the bevy of brands that are now tooting their horns around their purpose: "Try to fly like a superman, and you will come down like a tin of soup." Kolster says that, rather than promoting what’s good about their company or products, brands need to shift their focus to their customers — specifically, their brand’s role in helping its customers transform their lives (click here to read the intro to The Hero Trap).

We caught up with Kolster to dig a little deeper.

Why do we need yet another book on purpose?

Thomas Kolster: The need has never been more urgent, as our current approach to purpose is flawed and we need to embrace a new way forward. Quite frankly, you cannot watch an ad break these days without seeing 30 seconds of purpose-washing and do-good chest bumping from CEOs and companies. Everybody seems to be applauding purpose propaganda like was it a North Korean parade.

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In The Hero Trap, I go up against my earlier-held beliefs on purpose and portray a new way forward. As everybody is on a purpose and value crusade, it’s no longer a believable and differentiating position to own — and I’ll claim that people today don’t buy what or why you make it, but who you can help them become! Ultimately, you are not buying a pair of running shoes or the running company’s mission or higher purpose; but instead, how that company can help you run those miles.

You mentioned that the current approach to purpose is flawed — can you explain?

TK: Yes, as I mentioned, I have been a strong believer in purpose and in the business case for purpose, but it doesn’t seem to be delivering the results or the change needed — at least, not anymore. We’re seeing the emergence of a post-purpose era. If you can be the leader that helps people achieve their goals, you’re not overpromising. Think about the brands that have played a transformative role in your life. The relationship is different, right? I’m thankful to Nike for pushing me towards an active lifestyle. Change is happening. As a brand, when your reason to exist — when your organisation’s capabilities, products and services go into helping people to achieve their goals — then, you’re constantly pushing people towards a “better me.” With such focused efforts, I’ll argue there’s a higher chance I act, and those actions ultimately convert into sales at the cash register.

Purpose shouldn’t be a crusade to show what an organisation cares the most about or sacrifices the most for — like a Nike Colin Kaepernick commercial gone nuclear: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Instead, I believe an organization should trust fellow citizens, human beings, colleagues, mothers and fathers to bring about change. Most brands are selling what makes the brand special in the market, not what could make people special. They are selling a predefined identity or vision instead of a personal transformation.

Let’s talk more about the business case. How do you see a transformational approach as being more effective?

TK: I did a commissioned study comparing well-known purposeful commercials such as Budweiser’s “Wind Never Felt Better” with transformational commercials such as Always’ famous “Like A Girl” commercial. The findings were clear: People are 29.5 percent more motivated to act on transformational messaging. Maybe it’s actually not so surprising that the companies or leaders that motivate us towards change are more successful at it than those that view themselves as the agents of change.

I realized years ago how difficult it is to create change. We are our own biggest barriers to the change we want to see in our lives — and this is where brands have a truly meaningful role to play. Every brand can claim to be driven by purpose, but the one that helps produce an outcome I can feel and appreciate is a brand that has helped me overcome some of my own biases. In the book, I also showcase how people are even willing to pay more for brands that transform their lives.

Has your perspective change during the pandemic?

TK: No, not at all — it has only strengthened my belief. During the pandemic, we’ve seen people embrace a reality where it’s less about buying and more about realizing dreams, goals and ambitions. We’re heading towards that earlier mentioned post-purpose marketplace. It’s all about the difference you can enable in someone’s life. Patagonia can claim to be “in business to save our home planet,” but compare that to a statement from a Danish organic food box delivery service, Aarstiderne — their mission is spreading “the joy of organic produce and great-tasting meals.” As a customer, I’m improving my cooking and learning how to make great-tasting organic vegetarian meals. I’m thankful for the newfound cooking skills, which I can enjoy and share with friends. I don’t actually buy their organic produce. I buy who Aarstiderne helps me become: A better plant-based cook. We don’t need more brands preaching; we need coaches who can help us achieve our goals or overcome obstacles.

What is your advice for brands that want to avoid the Hero Trap?

TK: Most brands didn’t become irrelevant because they forgot their ‘why,’ but because they forgot who they were there for. You have to ask a different question if you as a brand or leader want to enable people’s personal transformation and move them from intention to action — and create the much-needed change we’re all fighting for. When you ask; “who can we help people become?” your focus becomes laser-sharp on what pushes the needle. Nobody, besides people themselves, can turn their aspirations and dreams into reality. You can teach them, give them the tools, you can hold their hand — but at the end of the day, it’s up to them.

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