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What’s the purpose of brand purpose?

The word yes writing into sand

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Why read this? : We look at the arguments for and against having a brand purpose. Learn its positive role in brand identity, and in creating an inspiring point of difference. We also look at the criticism that it’s abstract and fluffy, and distracts from the goal of selling. Read this to learn about the purpose of brand purpose. 

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 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. 

The word yes writing into sand

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 the future direction for your brand.

Before getting into the detail of building brand assets, you define these 3 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).
Brand identity

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 track your progress.

And that’s all great. Except it’s much easier to talk about those things than to do them. 

Imagine those questions weren’t about your brand, but instead were about you. Do you have a clear vision, purpose and goals?

We know there are rise-at-4am-to-do-star-jumps-types out there who’ll say yes. But let’s face it, most normal people only have vague ideas about this stuff, because they’re hard questions to answer. 

And if they’re hard to answer when it’s just about you, think about how hard it is when it’s about a brand. Marketing decisions about brands involve lots of people. And involving lots of people makes the decision process much tougher. 

Purpose is especially hard because you need to be more reflective and introspective to define it. 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 a challenge.

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 2 of those words – ‘stakeholders’ and ‘workshop’ come loaded with many challenges. 

Stakeholders

Stakeholders are normally defined as anyone who has a legitimate interest in a project or entity.

But this “interest” is often about protecting self-interest and preventing risk, rather than supporting new initiatives. (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”.

For example :-

  • Is it resources? They’re committing budget or resources to work on the brand purpose. 
  • Is it time? They’re committing time to craft and refine the purpose, and work through all the consequences.
  • Is it their reputation? Do they feel the wrong decision about the purpose will 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. 

It often seems stakeholders are pre-determined by job title and function, not by what’s at stake. 

It’s a mistake we’ve learned from. You should only involve stakeholders who have actual stakes in the outcomes. Brand purpose is an important part of marketing decision-making. What you put at stake is the price you pay for helping decide what it is. 

Workshops

Then, there’s that word “workshop”. We’ve shared in the past our issues with it. 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 work on brand purpose. But go carefully. A whole day vomiting out buzzwords on post-its (what happens in most workshops) won’t be the best way to define your brand purpose.  

Instead, make sure it’s a considered discussion, debate and decision to define why your brand exists.

Man with hands behind head and a frustrated look on his face

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 different marketing personality styles from our three monkeys of marketing article. 

These are extrovert feelers, extrovert thinkers and introvert thinkers.

Wooden model of Three Wise Monkeys - Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

Extrovert feelers

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 identify your products or services and drive sales. 

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

Extrovert thinkers

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. That purpose is to deliver 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, then great. But for extrovert thinkers, the world’s only a better place when the company’s results are good. Everything else comes second to that. 

Introvert thinkers

Which brings us to the introvert thinkers. 

They think deeply about brand purpose. Because they think deeply about many things. 

They 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. 

But the rational side of their brain also recognises 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 which relates to offering the best value. They may word it 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 which customers like, and it drives scale and efficiency. 

But while that approach can work for many businesses, it can’t work for every business. 

Five piles of different types of coins - appears to be 1,2,5,10 and 20 cent euros

Differentiator brand purpose - make a difference

It’s the brands which 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 differentiate between different brands other than regular price, price discounting and using cute puppies in their advertising.

Screengrab of the Who Gives a Crap website home page with the header banner Talking Crap - We launched a blog

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 which 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. Customers get the same product to meet their functional needs. But they get an extra emotional benefit by 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 doesn’t want to make the world a better place?

Good for customers

This is what makes brand purpose attractive to marketers. 

A brand which 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. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

What we think makes the world better may not be the same as what you think. 

This makes defining a brand purpose most customers will buy into 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.

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 social media posts afterwards showed the racial make-up of the leadership teams of those businesses was mostly white.

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 of fossil fuel burning. 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 which 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 it appeal to most customers. But, you 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, 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 competitors to copy. 

Emotional benefits go deeper and are 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 to the world. 

Brand benefit ladder - four key levels of benefit

Relevant Point of Difference

When brands can create this emotional benefit led point of difference, that’s where brand purpose adds the most value. 

But, that benefit has to be relevant. 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 categories can fill – informational or transformational, and different levels of involvement in buying decisions.

Sales copy - advertising and sales planning grid

Brands which play in informational and low involvement categories 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 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 3 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 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 2 main challenges. 

Getting a brand purpose 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.

Person sharpening the blade of an axe on a grinding machine

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 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” a lot. 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. 

Check out our guides to the brand development process and brand identity to find out more. Or contact us for advice on how to craft your own brand purpose. 

Photo credits

“Yes” in sand :  Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

Brand Identity  : Photo by Patrik Michalicka on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Frustrated Man : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Heart Button Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Coins in small piles : Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

Thumb up (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Grinding an axe : Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

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