Why Brands Need to Avoid Being Heroes in the World’s Story

In his new book, Thomas Kolster has an awakening about brand purpose

the hero trap book cover
When brands try to change the world, it can often backfire. Thomas Kolster

Key insights:

In 2012, author Thomas Kolster released his first book, Goodvertising. Eight years ago, the thinking in the book was revolutionary, and the Danish branding expert traded on his insights from people like David Droga of Droga5 and Hannah Jones, then CSO of Nike, on stages around the world, preaching the gospel of purpose and impact.

But today, the world is a much different place. Brands have become global institutions, replacing the leadership void of traditional structures. With this awakening and newfound influence, the idea of brand purpose, according to Kolster, is changing.

In his new book, The Hero Trap, Kolster essentially smashes his original thinking and issues a crucial warning to brands. Beyond “goodwashing,” Kolster explores how brands try to overcorrect, knowing their station in the world, to become heroes—and unwittingly (or knowingly) being selfish in the process.

Adweek chatted with Kolster about the new book, why his point of view and perspective have changed, and what the new brand playbook is.

What did you learn since Goodvertising that made you decide to go this direction with The Hero Trap?
Kolster: I always wanted to prove the business case of purpose. But suddenly, there was something that wasn’t working. It was likely an evolution, but that was not how it came to me in the beginning. It felt like every brand was flocking into [the purpose] space. Now, every brand was suddenly pitching themselves as the Nelson Mandelas and Greta Thunbergs of business. Suddenly, what was very niche and difficult to find when I did the research for Goodvertising was all over the place.

Three years ago, I was on a getaway to reflect, and I thought, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions [about purpose].” That’s where we got to today and, in many ways, goes against what I used to believe in.

Interestingly, you’re honest about the change in your thinking.
I should be happy about the fact that the message of Goodvertising came true, but I think the methodology from the beginning was flawed because people aren’t buying into these big “whys” of purpose. What are the proof points of purpose? Brands can try to outdo each other on innovation, but that never works. When you ask yourself how many brands have actually played a meaningful role in your life—either made you wiser, smarter, more connected or healthier—there weren’t many. It was difficult to find those cases.

For better or for worse, brands have become—and continue to replace—institutions. Are we setting precedents and outsized, unrealistic expectations?
These big global brands pit themselves as these world-saving heroes. As soon as you’re up on that pedestal and say, “We believe in diversity,” for example, you’re almost 100% certain to fail. Moving the goalposts is never just one thing. If you claim you are a sustainable company, it’s never only one thing. It does seem that people are becoming increasingly critical towards these companies, and the pressure on brands to act on [various subjects] is more urgent. The difficult part is how to do it now.

You mention diversity. [P&G CBO] Marc Pritchard is in the book, and that brand has done some interesting things related to race.
It’s so dangerous to stand up as a brand and say, “We believe in racial justice,” because, again, how do you live up to that? The approach I like is saying, “Who can we become?” And I think that we have to look inwards and try to fight some of those biases and stereotypes, and I’d love brands to be out there to help me do that. If you look at a piece like “The Talk,” it made me look inward and think about what I could do with my biases. So I think that’s the needed approach rather than putting yourself high up on a throne.

"I don’t think that brand activism is helping anything. I believe that actually builds more walls between people as opposed to building bridges."
Thomas Kolster

Brands, government and politics are more linked than ever now. And with higher expectations from the population, brands are in a challenging place.
I don’t think that brand activism is helping anything. That actually builds more walls between people as opposed to building bridges. People want brands that reflect their values, but when a lot of brands do that, what does that mean? That’s why I wanted to start the conversation around a post-purpose era. The concept may sound a little early, but I see so much cynicism about brands interfering in issues.

But brands don’t really have a choice now, do they?
The question is, how far should brands go? Very few brands can get away with it and navigate that fine line. Most of the brands that I believe can get away with [standing out and taking a stand] have a legacy, and they can bend the usual rule books that most other brands have to play by. Look at some of the bold work from brands like Nike and Patagonia. It’s a treacherous path for [other companies] to take.

Where does all of this go from here?
I’m still on the very same mission to understand what it takes to create change. But I think that the market landscape has changed. Because of the pandemic, so many people now understand what makes us happy … being more connected in society, spending more time with our family, getting time to take up a hobby. So I think a key message, as well, in the book is really to understand what it takes to create change and prove the business case as well.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.