Snapshot : Marketers like to debate the pros and cons of brand purpose. Some question why it’s needed, seeing it as abstract and fluffy, and a distraction from the goal of driving sales. Fans of brand purpose however, see it as part of building your brand identity. Use it to inspire customers and employees they argue, and create a strong point of difference. This week we look at both perspectives, and share our view on where brand purpose adds the most value.
There’s been a lot of talk about brand purpose in the marketing press and on marketing-related social media channels recently.
It comes after a study by the IPA and Peter Field into its effect on advertising effectiveness.
The study suggested advertising that had with a purpose-led message performed on average worse than the norm for all advertising.
But where the brand purpose advertising was “strongly executed”, that advertising performed much better than the average.
So “strongly executed” advertising performs better? Not sure we needed a fancy study to tell us that. But it got us thinking about brand purpose, and what it’s actually for.
Because for us, it’s got a much bigger “purpose” than just being something you wedge into your advertising.
The purpose of brand purpose
Brand purpose as an idea normally first appears in the early stages of building your brand identity.
You define it, along with your vision and goals to set they future direction for your brand.
Before getting into the detail of building brand assets, you define these three key elements to :-
- show where you’re trying to get to (the vision)
- why your brand exists (the brand purpose)
- how you’ll know when you’ve got there (the goals)
These all make sense, right?
They feel like things your brand should have. Without vision, purpose or goals, surely your brand will just drift along aimlessly and without clear focus? Vision, purpose and goals help you plan, set priorities and know you’re progressing.
And that’s all great, except that it’s much easier to talk about those things than to actually do them.
Imagine you had to answer those same questions about yourself. Do you have a clear vision, purpose and goals?
We know there are some rise-at-4am-to-do-star-jumps-types out there who’ll say yes. But let’s face it, most people only have vague ideas about these things for their own lives, because they’re hard questions to answer.
And if they’re hard to answer when it’s just about you, think about how hard they can be to answer when it’s about a brand. Marketing decisions about brands involve lots of people. And involving lots of people makes it much tougher to agree on vision, purpose and goals.
Purpose is especially hard, because it goes to a much deeper, more reflective and introspective level. It’s not quite the meaning of life, but it is the meaning of your brand. A clear brand purpose gives your brand meaning, but the process to get that clarity of purpose can be an especially challenging one.
The process of getting to brand purpose
Many brands get by without feeling the need for a brand purpose at all. But for those who see the need, the process is normally to gather together key stakeholders and run a brand workshop.
Sounds simple, right?
But two of those words – ‘stakeholders’ and ‘workshop’ come loaded with many challenges.
Stakeholders are normally defined as anyone who has a legitimate interest in a project or entity.
But this “interest” is often not about positive supporting that project or entity, it’s more about protecting self-interest and preventing risk. (see for example our articles on how to be a more creative company and managing creative approvals).
So, when you create your brand purpose, think about who the stakeholders are and why they’re stakeholders. Stakeholders need to have something at “stake” and be clear on what that is :-
- Is it resources? They’re committing budget or resources to work on the brand purpose.
- Is it time? They’re committing to do the hard work to craft and refine the purpose, and work through all the consequences. of what you decide.
- Is it their reputation? Do they feel the wrong decision about the purpose could somehow impact how others see them?
Think about your experiences with stakeholders. How many of them actually share what’s at stake for them?
It’s pretty rare in our experience.
In big businesses, stakeholders seem to be pre-determined by job title and function, not by what’s at stake.
It’s a marketing mistake we’ve learned from to only involve stakeholders who have actual stakes in the outcomes. Brand purpose is an important part of marketing decision-making. What you’re willing to put at stake is the price you need to pay for helping decide what it is.
Then, there’s that word “workshop”. We’ve shared in the past our issues with the word workshop. Mostly, it’s because there’s not a lot of actual “work” done at them. They’re usually frustrating wastes of time.
By all means get your stakeholders (with an actual stake) together to discuss and decide on brand purpose. But go carefully. It’s not a session to spend a day vomiting out buzzwords on post-its around the room, which is what many workshops turn into.
It’s a serious discussion, debate and ultimately decision about articulating why your brand exists.
Why your brand exists - brand purpose
Answering why your brand exists is where things get more tricky.
It’s a broad question, that’s open to very different interpretations, depending on your perspective.
To help understand the different perspectives on brand purpose, we’ll use the three different marketing personality styles from our previous article on the three monkeys of marketing.
These are extrovert feelers, extrovert thinkers and introvert thinkers.
Extrovert feeler types see brand purpose as a way to emotionally engage in the brand – for themselves, for the rest of the business, and for customers.
It’s meaningful and inspiring.
They love brand purpose because it adds more emotional depth and meaning to what a brand does.
Like it’s fulfilling some sort of higher calling beyond the basic functional purpose of brands – to help customers identity your products or services and drive sales.
And that’s more where your extrovert thinkers see brand purpose. They’re much more pragmatic and practical about why the brand exists.
To them, the brand serves a purpose and that purpose is about delivering results. If the brand purpose creates emotional connections for customers, there still has to be a practical outcome. Engaging customers ultimately is about driving more sales.
If the brand purpose also makes the world a better place great. But for extrovert thinkers, the world’s only a better place when the company’s delivering results. Anything else, they don’t really give much thought to.
Which brings us to the introvert thinkers.
They will think deeply about brand purpose. Because they think deeply about many things.
They’ll consider why you need brand purpose. Introvert thinkers understand the logical need to have a rallying cry for the brand. People – customers, employees, you – need to understand what the brand’s for.
Introvert thinkers understand that if the brand purpose fills a bigger need in customers than just the functional benefit, that’s a good thing for the business.
But the rational side of them also recognises that purpose means different things to different people and different businesses.
And that’s where the real value of brand purpose comes in, with this deep thinking. Because with deep thinking, you realise it’s really all about the context of the brand.
The context of brand purpose
The key context for how you decide on the role of brand purpose usually comes down to your brand’s competitive strategy. You’re usually either driven by the need to keep costs low – cost leadership – or the need to be different – differentiation or niche strategies.
Cost leader brand purpose - value
Businesses who go after cost leadership will have a purpose that relates to offering the best value for customers. They may word differently, but the choice of cost leadership as a competitive approach sets the brand purpose as value.
That may not sound clever or inspiring, but in many categories, it’s a very effective brand purpose. It gives the brand focus. It delivers a benefit that many customers like, and it drives scale and efficiency.
But while that approach can work for many businesses, it can’t work for every business.
Differentiator brand purpose - make a difference
It’s the brands that go for differentiation or niche positions that tend to get into deeper more emotional and meaningful brand purposes.
Look at toilet paper for example.
A basic functional product that, pandemic supply fears aside, most people give little thought to.
Little to differentiation between different brands other than regular price, price discounting and using cute puppies in their advertising.
Then, along comes a new sort of business. A social brand purpose led business like Who Gives a Crap. They take this basic product, and add an extra benefit that creates more of an emotional attachment to the purchase. For every sale, they donate 50% of their profits to building toilets in the developing world. For customers, that means they get the same product to fulfil functional needs, but they get an added emotional benefit of making someone else’s life better.
This is the type of area where brand purpose makes a difference.
It’s when customers get something more from their purchase, beyond pure functional benefits. In this case a feeling they’re making the world a better place.
After all, who wouldn’t want to make the world a better place?
Good for customers
This is what makes brand purpose attractive to marketers.
A brand that makes the world a better place? How could you not enjoy working on that? It feels like an “easy” message to sell customers. How could your customers not want to buy a brand that makes the world a better place, right?
But in reality it’s not that easy.
Making the world a better place is another phrase that’s wide open to interpretation.
What we think makes the world better may not be what you think makes the world better.
This makes defining a brand purpose that most customers will buy into much more tricky. Whatever you decide, chances are someone somewhere won’t agree with you. And if you don’t actually follow through on your brand purpose, well, someone somewhere will call you out on that too.
So for example, with last years Black Lives Matters protests, a number of the big US sportswear brands (who have a number of celebrity black sports stars as influencers) came out in support. But then there were a lot of social media posts afterwards which showed the racial make-up of the boards of directors in those businesses, didn’t reflect much in the way of racial equality.
Look at all the noise around COP-26 and climate change right now as another example.
On one side, you’ve got all the environmentalists highlighting the huge damage fossil fuel burning has done to the environment.
But on the other side, you have the huge numbers of people whose livelihoods depend on those industries, and who wouldn’t be able to live without them.
The consequences of your brand purpose
Whatever your brand purpose, if it’s in an area that polarises opinions, you have to be prepared for the consequences. Not every customer will buy into what you stand for.
Expertise in public relations can help you refine how you articulate it in a way that makes ti appealing to most customers. But, you will need to stress test the purpose and understand the impact it has.
The brand purpose needs to be relevant and meaningful to customers. It needs to connect with your wider network of influencers and stakeholders.
Get it right, it and it moves you up the benefit ladder when you’re creating your positioning statement.
It can help pull your brand away from just delivering functional benefits. These are easier for competitions to copy.
Emotional benefits go deeper and are much harder to copy. You can help people feel better about something that’s relevant to them. You can help them feel they’re making a difference in the world.
Relevant Point of Difference
When brands can create this emotional benefit led point of difference, that’s where brand purpose is adds the most value.
But, that benefit has to be relevant and not every category can offer the same level of emotional engagement for customers.
For example, in our guide to sales copy, we talk about the Rossiter – Percy grid which shows different needs that categories can fill – informational or transformational, and different levels of involvement in buying decisions.
Brands that play in informational and low involvement categories will find it hard to create strong emotional benefits. Their brand purpose is more likely to be in the cost leadership / value area.
Good for employees
The final benefit of brand purpose is that it also impacts the people inside your business. Purpose can be a great motivator for employees and agencies.
In Dan H Pink’s excellent Drive, he outlines three drivers of motivation at work :-
- autonomy – being able to choose what you work on.
- mastery – being able to work towards mastering a skill.
- purpose – feeling you’re making a difference.
We’ll come back to autonomy and mastery another time, but there’s that word purpose there.
If your brand purpose gives people in your business a feeling that they’re making a difference, that’s a great motivator. It encourages them to go above and beyond what’s needed to get the job done, and makes them feel more positive about working for your business.
Grind out your brand purpose
Brand purpose helps your brand stand out. It’s good for customers and employees.
So, why isn’t everyone on board with brand purpose?
Well, there’s two real challenges.
Getting a brand purpose that people can believe in. And then living that brand purpose in everything you do. both of those are hard work, and you have to grind them out.
Customers are sceptical of brand claims.
The purpose needs to connect with what the brand actually does. It needs to connect with how customers think and what the people in the business do. It’s a commitment you need to live up to.
We see a lot of big global business talk about brand purpose. They like it because it helps their Corporate Social Responsibility reputation and keeps shareholders happy. But dig below the surface, and question if their actions meet their words.
For example, those that talk about sustainability, but then ship their products all over the world.
Or those that talk about health benefits, but then release organic products with no evidence of being beneficial to health.
Practice what you preach
You have to practice what you preach with brand purpose.
In a previous role, we were lucky enough to take part in a charity day at Foodbank. They do an amazing job getting groceries out to people who need it, as well as massively reducing food waste.
When we were there, the Foodbank CEO dropped in and personally came round and thanked each of the volunteers for giving up their time. They talked about the benefits the work was doing for people.
Amazing leadership. They lived the purpose.
Less amazing though was the leader of the business we were there representing. This was a leader who mentioned “purpose” every change they got. And yet on that day at Foodbank, they only managed to stay for an hour, before making their excuses. The rest of the team got left to do all the actual work.
Not a great example of living the purpose.
Conclusion – brand purpose
For us, brand purpose is an important part of your brand identity. It helps you define why your brand exists.
But it needs to be built carefully. It needs to be relevant to customers and what you brand does for them. It’s a commitment you can genuinely deliver every day.
If it’s a poorly thought out buzzword thrown out by senior leaders more intent on their own image and sales numbers, it just won’t work.
It’s fine if your brand purpose is offering customers value. That’s relevant and genuine and a commitment you can make.
And if if’s something that goes beyond that, all the better. If your purpose drives emotional benefits for customers, and makes the world a better place, use that to inspire your team, your customers and yourself.