The Difference Between “Purpose” and “Propaganda”

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U.S. pharmacy chain CVS recently announced that it would no longer use “materially altered” imagery to market beauty products in its stores.

That means no more perfect, digitally-modified wrinkle and blemish-free photographs to sell everything from moisturizer to lipstick.  Instead, consumers will see more realistic pictures of models, complete with crow’s feet and birthmarks.  (See the photo above, provided by CVS, which illustrates the difference.)

Why did CVS make this change?  It all has to do with the company’s brand purpose, their “reason for being.”

In a statement announced the change, CVS noted the connection between the propagation of unrealistic body images and negative health effects, particularly for girls and young women.  Given that the company’s stated corporate purpose is to “help people on their path to better health,” the use of airbrushed images in promotional materials seemed contradictory and ill-advised.

This isn’t the first time CVS has made a bold move inspired by its brand purpose.  A few years ago, the firm stopped selling cigarette and tobacco products, forgoing an estimated $2 billion in revenue.  That decision, too, was triggered by the inconsistency between the company’s purpose and the well-documented health effects of those products.  (See my earlier post on that decision.)

What CVS is giving us here is a master class in the difference between corporate purpose and corporate propaganda.

Most firms practice the latter – articulating a business purpose that makes for good annual report copy, but doesn’t really translate into tangible action.  It’s nothing more that corporate window dressing.

Far less common, but much more notable, are firms like CVS which don’t just define a brand purpose but actually live by it (even when it requires really tough decisions, like walking away from a $2 billion business).

Such actions help pave the way for a better and more distinctive customer experience because, in the eyes of consumers, it makes the company more appealing, more genuine, and more authentic.

Kudos to CVS for taking yet another bold stand that helps make their brand purpose more than just a piece of corporate propaganda.  Those kinds of decisions can spruce up a company’s brand image far more effectively than even the best airbrush.

7 COMMENTS

  1. It is refreshing to see a company willing to forgo maximizing their bottom line out of concern for their clients. It would be great to see things come full circle so that people invested in organizations that are good corporate citizens and true to their purpose. Buyers are weary and skeptical about corporate propaganda.

  2. In his book The Living Company, author Arie de Geus studied the features of companies that have lasted more than two-hundred years. One of the characteristics sited was a compelling purpose that drives culture. Driving culture means their purpose is a foundation for decisions and direction. Johnson and Johnson’s behavior after the tampering of Tylenol capsules in Chicago in 1982 is an example of purpose-driven decision making. Their market share fell from 35% to 7% almost overnight. Their “safety over profits” purpose cost them over $300 million to recall 31 million old packages of Tylenol capsules and create a new tamper-resistant package that became the standard of the industry. Within three months the company’s stock price regained 95% of its pre-crisis market share because they did the right thing. And, it is still a grand example today of how purpose-based cultures thrive.

  3. It’s a customer-centric, and trust-based, move on CVS’ part, and also an endeavor to be a bit more consistent in living their values. However, it is nothing particularly new. Chip talked about Tylenol’s package tampering issues from 35 years ago as one example of regaining consumer trust (full disclosure – I was part of the team working on the research that led to the packaging fixes they made). I’ll cite another example. Years ago, Campbell Soup Company was sharply criticized for putting marbles at the bottom of soups displayed in their advertising, to make it look like there was more solid than liquid in the bowl. Over the years the public has grown both more savvy and more sensitive to any whiff of dishonesty or inconsistency on the part of vendors, but they’d rather feel confident, and emotionally positive, that suppliers will at least deliver what they’ve promised.

  4. Jon, I believe that employees and customers both want to engage with organizations that have an over-riding objective (i.e., purpose) that stimulates their “self actualization” need.

    I watch Shark Tank and week-after-week I hear the sharks say “customers like to buy from companies that use a percent of their profits to do good for someone”. What CVS is doing is not quite up to the level of building schools for girls in undeveloped countries but is certainly a step in that direction.

    Good article.

  5. While I applaud CVS for this change, I still consider the photo propaganda, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. The woman pictured is thin, with blond hair and blue eyes, and attractive. Yes, this is still an idealization of beauty, even without digital alteration. Rock on!

    I believe the primary motivation for making this decision has everything to do with staying true to their brand message as promoters of health, and less to do with trying to do good in the world. Similarly, forgoing $2 billion in tobacco sales might sound like a huge sacrifice, but at the time CVS made this decision, their overall revenue was $139 billion. Giving up less than 2% of their revenue to avoid appearing disingenuous seems a smart decision. In this instance, I’m sure the free positive publicity and goodwill from consumers doesn’t hurt, either.

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