Why read this? : We look at the arguments for and against brand purpose. Learn why those for it say it’s a key part of your brand identity and point of difference. And why those against it say it’s too abstract, and it distracts you from your sales goals. Read this to learn more about the purpose of brand purpose.
There’s been a lot of talk about brand purpose in the marketing press and on social media 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.
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 something you wedge into your advertising.
The purpose of brand purpose
The idea of brand purpose 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. Taken together, these 3 intangible brand assets :-
- 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, your brand will drift along aimlessly without a 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 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, as they’re hard questions to answer.
If they’re hard to answer when it’s just about you, imagine how hard it is when it’s about a whole brand. Marketing decisions about brands involve many people. That makes decisions much harder.
Purpose is especially hard as you have to be more reflective 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 clear meaning is often a challenge.
The process of getting to brand purpose
Many brands get by without having a brand purpose at all. For those who see the need for one, the process normally starts by gathering key stakeholders and running a brand workshop.
Sounds simple, right?
But those words ‘stakeholders’ and ‘workshop’ can make coming up with a brand purpose more difficult.
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. (For example, see 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 people to work on it.
- Is it time? They’re committing time to craft and refine it and work through all the consequences.
- Is it their reputation? Do they feel a badly done purpose will impact how others see them?
Think about your experiences with stakeholders. How many of them ever share what they have at stake?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The brand matters because it helps drive customer choice. The brand purpose might also create emotional connections for customers, but ultimately it’s about driving more sales.
Brand purpose might make the world a better place. But for extrovert thinkers, the world’s only a better place when the company’s results are good. Everything else comes second to that.
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 is 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 all about the context of the brand.
The context of brand purpose
Cost leader brand purpose - value
The purpose of cost leadership businesses is driven by offering the best value. They may word it differently, but it’ll boil down to making customers a better offer than their competitors.
That may not sound clever or inspiring. But in many categories, it works very well. It gives the brand focus. It delivers a benefit 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
Brands which go for differentiation or niche positions 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.
Then, along comes a new sort of business. A social 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 to customers. How could customers not want to buy a brand that makes the world a better place, right?
But the reality’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 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 live up to your brand purpose, well, someone, somewhere will call you out on that.
For example, with last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Many big US sportswear brands (who use celebrity black sports stars as influencers) came out in support. But then social media posts soon showed the whiteness of the leadership teams of those businesses.
Look at all the noise around COP-26 and climate change right now as another example. On one side, you’ve got environmentalists highlighting the huge damage from burning fossil fuels. But on the other side, you’ve huge numbers of people whose livelihoods depend on those industries. Very different purposes competing with each other there.
The consequences of your brand purpose
If your brand purpose is in an area which polarises opinions, you have to be prepared for the consequences. Not every customer will buy into what you stand for.
Public relations experts can help you articulate it in a way that appeals to most customers. But, you need to stress test the purpose and understand the impact it has.
The brand purpose has to be relevant and meaningful to customers. It has 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 helps pull your brand away from delivering just functional benefits. Competitors can copy these.
Emotional benefits go deeper and are harder to copy. You help people feel better about something relevant to them. You help them feel they’re making a difference to the world.
Relevant Point of Difference
When brands create this emotional point of difference, that’s where brand purpose adds the most value.
But, that benefit has to be relevant. Not every category offers the same level of emotional engagement for customers.
For example, the Rossiter – Percy grid advertising planning model suggests there are different :-
- needs categories can fill – informational or transformational.
- levels of involvement in buying decisions.
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, firstly, it’s hard work. Getting a brand purpose people can believe in. And then living that brand purpose in everything you do. Both of those are hard, and you have to grind them out.
Plus, customers are sceptical about what brands say.
The purpose has to connect with what the brand actually does. It has to connect with how customers think, and what people in the business do. It’s a commitment you live up to.
Many big businesses 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 it’s less clear their actions support their words.
For example, food businesses that talk sustainability, but then ship their products all over the world, with no thought about food miles. Or companies that say they promote health, but then release organic products with no evidence of health benefits.
Practice what you preach
You have to practice what you preach with brand purpose. Here’s a short story to finish that shows how you should and shouldn’t do it.
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 them, as well as massively reducing food waste.
When we were there, the Foodbank CEO dropped in and personally came around and thanked each of the volunteers for giving up their time. He talked about the benefits the work was doing for people.
Amazing leadership. He 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, she only managed to stay an hour, before making her 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 has to be built carefully. It needs to be relevant to customers and what your brand does for them. It’s a commitment you can genuinely deliver every day.
If it’s poorly thought-out jargon cobbled together by senior leaders more intent on enhancing their own image, it just won’t work.
It’s fine if your brand purpose is offering customers good value. That’s relevant and genuine and a commitment you can make. And if it’s something beyond that, all the better. If your purpose drives emotional benefits and makes the world a better place, use that to inspire your team, your customers and yourself.