How to think about brand purpose

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
June 30 . 3min read

Yes yes, we know. There have been yards and yards of newsprint written over the past few years about brand purpose. There are few fresh perspectives left to be had on the subject. But given the events of the past couple of weeks, where not only notoriously purpose-driven brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have pulled their ad spend from Facebook, but brands that previously showed few signs of a conscience – Unilever, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s etc – did too, we reckon it’s worth revisiting the purpose question.

There are those who are definitely NOT fans: notably Mark Ritson, who referred to brand purpose as the ‘crack pipe’ that ‘increasingly addled marketers’ smoke; and Byron Sharp whose entire thesis is that brands grow through distinctiveness and mental and physical availability – not brand purpose and ideals. And of course there are full-on purpose fanboys. These include – amongst many others –Simon Sinek, who famously says ‘people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it’, and Mark Earls who in his book Herd reckons that successful brands are driven by a belief and a sense of purpose.

There is a strange group of post-Sinek marketers. Those who go beyond believing that purpose drives success, declaring that companies somehow have a responsibility, through purpose, to change the world.

And then there is a strange group of post-Sinek marketers. Those who go beyond believing that purpose drives success, declaring that companies somehow have a responsibility, through purpose, to change the world. Here is Blackrock Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Laurence Fink in his letter to CEOs:

“Unnerved by fundamental economic changes and the failure of government to provide lasting solutions, society is increasingly looking to companies, to address pressing social and economic issues”.

And Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer says:

“Consumers are looking to brands to fill a void in global governance left by divided and populist government. My purchase of products each week makes more of a difference than my vote every four years in the broader debate on issues such as tolerance, environment and education. I want brands to stand with me.”

Three types of purposeful businesses

Whatever your position on brand purpose, we think that a good way to make sense of it is to bucket businesses that define themselves as having a purpose into three distinct groups:

1. Purpose in the genes: These brands are the most genuinely purposeful. They have purpose built into their DNA. They often have a charismatic founder at the helm and from the get-go had a broader societal purpose at their heart. Their business models help to alleviate a societal problem, through shared profits and internal and external brand behaviour. Patagonia is the go-to example of this, but locally brands like Dresden, Thankyou, and Who Gives A Crap fit the bill equally well. These guys get to talk about the why, because it’s so integral to everything they do; and when they are successful, their purpose is seen as integral to that success.

2. Trying to be better: These are often bigger businesses who have converted more recently to the cause. They are genuine in their desire to have a positive effect on the world and to become more socially responsible – whilst making money. Because they are converts, they are on a journey of change, and because they have legacy systems, processes and power structures it’s likely that they won’t always get things right. They’ll have to sacrifice the purpose-driven for the profit-making from time to time. And because they don’t have a charismatic founder-leader in charge, holding them permanently in line, they will often aspire to their purpose rather than truly living it all the time.

3. Taking advantage: The third kind of purpose-business isn’t really purpose-driven at all. Rather, they’ve seen that brand purpose – when done by genetically purposeful businesses like those listed above – seems to drive a deep emotional connection with customers that translates to profit, and so they’ve tried to co-opt the style without bothering with the substance. They jump on the latest woke topic that is galvanising the masses and push out an ad campaign that claims solidarity with a cause or tries to own the solution. Think Pepsi’s awful Kendall Jenner-fronted ad that claimed to be trying to ‘project a global message of unity, peace and understanding’. But because it’s an approach that was developed in the marketing department it is less likely to gain traction across the whole business and deliver any lasting change.

It seems pretty obvious to us (though difficult to objectively measure) that the more genuinely purpose is embedded in a company – the more a company’s words reflect its actions – the more likely purpose is to deliver some kind of profit. And whilst we believe brands should behave responsibly, we don’t believe they have a responsibility to change the world. That sort of thinking can be deeply dangerous. So our advice is to tread very carefully when thinking about purpose and its role in driving an organisation forward, be conscious of the limitations imposed on purposeful thinking by organisational structures, processes etc, and use purpose wisely: if you can’t make it a guiding principle, don’t put it at the centre of your communications.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
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