Why just one question?

Apr 18th, 2019

A few years ago, someone put a question onto Quora, the collaborative Q&A platform:

If you could only ask one question of everyone you met from now on in order to gain insight from/about them, what would it be?

The responses were from people as diverse as bloggers, research consultants, comedians, and trainers. As one would expect in an open platform, people gave their answers from a personal and somewhat emotional perspective as much as from a dehumanised, rational one. Some just gave links. Some talked about the single questions that they hated (“What do you do? What are your passions?”) rather than the single questions that they wanted to ask.

However, the most upvoted answer came from Jodi Kantor, a journalist for the New York Times. Her view was that “… the most illuminating questions are simple and specific”, citing her earlier interview with Barack and Michelle Obama, where she asked how they could have an equal marriage when one of them is President. Cue flinching and a stilted, nervous response, until Michelle saved Barack to say that they are equal in their private lives, if not necessarily in their public ones. (Indeed, one might suggest that it’s now Michelle who has more of a prominent public life).

These questions – designed to put interviewees on the spot – are a fact of life. They are not necessarily set out to make us flinch or squirm, but do so because they are unexpected. Indeed, at another point in Kantor’s interview, Barack might have given a beautifully rehearsed answer. But, he wasn’t expecting that question at that time. More power to Michelle for saving him, and for saving the situation.

This year’s question for One Question, Does purpose really drive profit?, may also make us feel slightly uncomfortable. The past of many multinationals invites a very different sense of purpose than what we currently consider the term to be. Indeed, whether it’s cheating emissions tests, dumping toxic chemicals into water sources, colluding with nefarious organisations or working for unsavoury governments, one could argue that these purposeful actions, unsavoury as they are, were done with the ultimate intention to drive corporate profit – or, at least, keep the company alive in a given situation. Purpose drove profit, certainly. But, we still have some way to go until purpose and profit exists in a truly harmonious relationship.

Last week, I had to buy some washing capsules. I chose one of the most famous washing brands which is owned by a large multinational, eager to communicate its positive CSR actions and – yes – purposes. In looking at the back of the bag, the capsules are claimed to be “harmful to aquatic life”. How does this stack up with the company’s aspirations of being one with purpose? And, here we go back to the question. It’s probably highly profitable for this product to exist, because it’s presumably cheaper for harmful washing capsules to be made and sold than those which do not cause such harm. Extend this metaphor to other markets and the purpose/profit tightrope exists there also: families who buy nutrition-poor ready meals do so because they are cheaper on face value than fresh vegetables, and offer less hassle to cook.

Perhaps the notion of all “one questions” is the motive. What was the motive behind Jodi Kantor asking her question to the Obamas? As she states in her Quora response, she had come to understand that equality was a serious issue in their marriage – that they were treated differently in the White House – and she wanted to get under the skin of that. So, whilst the Obamas took her question on face value, part of her motive was to gain a greater understanding of how the White House (and the people within it) also worked.

Underpinning both purpose and profit is indeed the motive. If the motive of a brand’s purpose is to generate a positive outcome for society, then they may have to sacrifice their potential profits until the market comes to their way of thinking – which is a gamble. If government regulates for purpose, or such models exist (see B-Corps), then their venture may be a noble yet isolated one. If the market considers purpose to be fundamental to consumer decisions, then they have first-mover advantage.

Not all consumers opt for purpose over profit, of course, and when they come to such decisions, they are often stuck, not knowing what to do. Do we have our cooker repaired for £250 when a new cooker is £300, even though the repair is much more environmentally friendly, or would we like the new product? In order for purpose to drive profit at all, this is as much to do with informing consumers and creating a new choice architecture for them, as much as it is about brands informing themselves that socially-positive purpose is the “right” approach.

There’s everything to play for. The worst thing that a brand can do is to squirm in one’s seat, Barack Obama-like, when facing such difficult questions. Heady times require head-on answers.