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Brand Purpose has its place

Brand Purpose has its place

Brand purpose has twisted a lot of knickers. It can feel like a sectarian issue in brand strategy and advertising circles. To some people it’s a powerful branding idea whose time has come. To others it’s just the latest popular strategy delusion. As ever, the reality is not as black and white as it’s presented on Twitter. A pragmatic approach to brand purpose is about being clear with definitions and dealing with shades of grey.

To these ends – seeking clarity and precision – this post examines the issue of Brand Purpose from several angles.


First principles
Brand purpose with a small p
Brand Purpose with a big P
Organisational or corporate purpose
Good behaviour as distinct from good marketing
Medium-sized brand purpose
Loose ends

First principles

If you are intent on building a brand, your aim is to create a persistent set of attractive and relevant associations, both conscious and subconscious, in the minds of as many potential buyers as possible.

As such, the only question that matters for brand purpose is whether it helps or hinders in this respect. Is a focus on brand purpose a more efficient and effective means to create these positive associations than the conventional approach of dramatising the core utility of a product or service?

Brand purpose with a small p

All brands have purpose with a lower case p. Customers only buy from you if your product or service is useful, if you serve a purpose in their lives. This small p purpose is usually described in terms of the functional and emotional benefits of a brand. The main functional benefits of Colgate toothpaste are that it cleans and protects your teeth, and freshens your breath. The emotional benefit is it makes you feel confident about opening your mouth in company.

This small p brand purpose can also be encapsulated by the jobs-to-be-done approach to brand positioning. What job does a customer “hire” your brand to do in a given context? When I was sixteen I “hired” Colgate to conceal the fact that I’d been drinking from my parents.

Small p brand purpose is uncontroversial. It’s obvious. It’s transactional. It’s intrinsic to the utility provided by the product or service around which the brand is wrapped.

Brand Purpose with a big P

Brand Purpose with a big P is where things get tricky, and sometimes heated. The debate hinges on whether, and in what circumstances, people will buy a product or service for reasons other than the basic job they need it to do. Can your brand serve another kind of higher Purpose (big P) that makes it more attractive to potential buyers?

The answer is neither never nor always. It depends.

Cancer Research is seeking to make all cancers curable. The RNLI saves lives at sea. WWF is preventing the destruction of nature. If you’re looking for brands driven by a higher purpose, purposes don’t come much higher than these. These organisations are defined by purpose to the extent that if you take the purpose away, there is no brand left.

This applies to the charity sector as a whole. We buy into charities with our donations rather than buying from them. And the reason for buying in is that we want to support them in working toward their purpose.

For charities, the organisation and the brand are indivisible. They share the same name and so the organisation’s purpose is the brand’s Purpose (with a big P). Brand Purpose is essential to the building of these brands. All charity marketing is cause-related marketing, which is generally what people are referring to when they talk about purpose-driven brands. Cause-related marketing is when a brand has a higher Purpose and decides to make it the focus of brand building activity.

So big P brand Purpose evidently has a place. At least it doesn’t not have a place. As with so many things, it’s all about context.

Brand Purpose (big P) can also have a place in the marketing strategy of commercial brands.

Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty is a classic example, if not the classic example. It was a reaction against its industry’s distortion of the very concept of beauty – skincare and cosmetic brands in a kind of conspiracy to promote an unattainable ideal that serves to undermine the confidence and self-esteem of the very people these brands are meant to serve. By exposing this distortion, and by encouraging normal people to celebrate the natural and diverse beauty inherent to every face and every body, Dove’s Purpose was, and still is, to encourage a healthy relationship with self-image and hence improve self-esteem.

It’s worth examining the anatomy of this campaign as a role model for Brand Purpose done well. How does it help the process of brand building by creating associations that are both attractive and relevant to potential buyers?

  • The campaign is attractive because it helps people to feel good about themselves in a world where many beauty campaigns perversely do the opposite. The Brand Purpose – improved self esteem – is actually a core emotional benefit. A little like Colgate, the brand is selling a heightened form of confidence. Dove’s small p purpose (utility) and big P Purpose (ideology) are variations on this single theme of self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Dove’s Purpose is self-evidently relevant to its category and its customers. There is nothing gratuitous or incongruous about a beauty brand taking a stance on beauty marketing and how it makes people feel.
  • Dove’s brand Purpose is authentic and sincere. This was apparent at the start from the wholehearted execution. And it has become increasingly apparent with time. Dove has committed itself to its cause for well over a decade, and that commitment runs much deeper than just advertising. It’s difficult to be cynical about this campaign, were you so inclined, when the body language around it is so good.

So, if certain conditions are satisfied, brand Purpose can be used as the basis for successful, brand-building, cause-related marketing. Brand Purpose can have a place in commercial branding. That absolutely doesn’t mean that it should.

It’s easy to get this purpose-driven approach wrong. Dove makes it look so simple and so elegant. But it’s tough for cause-related marketing to be all three of attractive, relevant and sincere. For people who exist outside the marketing bubble, it’s unlikely that a worthy Purpose will be more attractive and relevant than brilliant storytelling about a product. It’s easy for brands to forget themselves and lose sight of the important but mundane role that that they play in people’s lives.

Even if your Purpose can be presented in an attractive and relevant way, you have to pass the sincerity test. And sincerity, manifesting as deep, long-term, Dove-style commitment, is culturally impossible for many organisations.

Gillette’s transition from The Best A Man Can Get to The Best Men Can Be failed against the attractiveness criterion for many observers, including the 1.6 million people who gave it a thumbs down on YouTube. Whereas the Dove campaign works to make women feel good about themselves, the Gillette work seemed intent on making men feel bad. And whilst the campaign may have felt sincere within the walls of Gillette, it didn’t feel that way on the outside.

Highly respected brands that have been well managed for decades are highly susceptible to tone deafness when they elevate Purpose to be the subject of marketing communications.

Getting cause-related marketing wrong is easier than getting it right. Purpose with a big P has its place, but that place might not be in brand marketing.

Organisational or corporate purpose

Why does an organisation exist, other than to make money for its shareholders in ever-increasing amounts? The answer to this question varies according to the legal status of the organisation and to the vision of its leaders.

A not-for-profit entity is pointless without a non-commercial purpose to drive it. For these organisations, money is not an end, it’s a means to change things for the better.

By contrast, a listed company is duty bound to serve the financial interests of its shareholders above all else. When push comes to shove, any non-financial declaration of purpose will be quickly sidelined and conveniently forgotten if it comes into conflict with profit and growth. I’ve seen it happen. It’s nigh on impossible for a publicly owned company to be driven by a higher purpose when it is legally driven by the interests of its shareholders.

The idea of being purpose-driven makes more sense for privately owned businesses. Principles, values, culture and purpose can be prioritised over short term financial considerations. And a sense of purpose can be good for business without featuring in any brand marketing. How so?

A sincere corporate purpose is almost but not quite a statement of strategy. Adhering sincerely to its purpose will direct a company to do or not do certain things. Doing something “on purpose” is similar to, but not the same as, making decisions that are “on strategy”.

The two biggest decisions in strategy are Where To Play and How To Win. Corporate purpose, as I see it, sits slightly above or maybe slightly to the side of these issues. It’s about Why To Play. It gives the organisation a conscience and conviction.

The Hiut Denim Company has chosen to play in the premium denim jeans market. Its approach to winning is to create jeans of supremely high quality, from the best materials, and target them at a community of “creative” people. The company’s declared purpose, however, is to put the town in which it is based back to work again. By reopening an old jeans factory, Hiut is creating sustainable employment in its local community.

The people who care most about Hiut’s purpose are the people most affected by it, namely its employees. An organisation with an authentic purpose gives the people who work for it a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning. There’s more to work than earning a wage. This, in turn, has a positive impact on culture and perhaps on productivity and quality control. A good purpose can be good business. In Hiut’s case, this works from the inside out.

Corporate purpose can appeal to other audiences too. If I’m an ethical investor, Hiut’s purpose might convince me to provide them with additional capital should they need it.

Hiut purpose (Brand purpose)

Does corporate purpose translate into brand appeal? Well, it depends.

It depends on how easy it is to make the connection between organisation and brand. In Hiut’s case it helps that the company and the brand share the same name – its corporate purpose therefore adds a layer of societal benefits to the functional and emotional benefits of its brand purpose.

And it depends on whether people care. For some people, provenance and back story are important factors in what they consider to be a discerning choice. I might care about Hiut’s purpose-driven back story if I’m paying £245 for a pair of jeans. I’m less likely to give a damn when I’m buying a tube of toothpaste.

When we’re talking about purpose, we don’t always have to talk about brand purpose. Purpose can operate at a corporate level and it can affect audiences other than those that buy from you. A shared understanding of an organisation’s Why To Play adds another dimension to strategic decision making.

Good behaviour as distinct from good marketing

People who buy your brand might not care about the declared purpose of your organisation. However, there are people, me included, who do care about corporate behaviour, and make purchase decisions partly on this basis.

I cancelled my Amazon Prime membership because of the company’s avoidance of tax and the treatment of its warehouse workers. I try not to knowingly buy Nestlé products because of the company’s ongoing sketchy relationship with the world’s water supply.

There are lots of reasons – political, ethical, ideological – not to buy a brand based on the actions of the company behind it, if you are that way inclined. And it seems that an increasing number of people are that way inclined. This doesn’t mean most people, but it’s enough for this kind of brand avoidance, amplified by social media, to be seen as a significant source of commercial risk. Avoidance works at an individual level, but there is also collective action under the banner of Consumer Activism.

Risk makes influential people sit up and take notice. Witness the increased attention given to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investment criteria. ESG provides an additional set of risk/return evaluation criteria for investors. ESG recognises that companies are under increasing ethical scrutiny and that this should be factored into investment decisions. In theory this aligns a company’s duty to shareholders with its duty to people and the planet.

A precursor to ESG was CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). CSR is about companies recognising and owning their impacts and working to reduce, offset, or compensate for them.

There’s little controversy around CSR done well. I don’t think people have a problem with organisations trying to be better corporate citizens. It’s a good thing for companies to offset or mitigate the operational harms of doing business. And who’s going to complain if a company reduces waste, pays its taxes and does right by its people? And, done well, CSR can be a valuable component of a brand’s story.

The Days Brewing Company brews great-tasting, alcohol-free beers. Its products have a long list of functional and emotional benefits. And there are a number of jobs that you can “hire” Days Beers to do for you. Its summarised brand purpose (with a small p) is to give drinkers all the upsides of a refreshing beer, with none of the downsides.

Days also has a higher corporate purpose relating to wellbeing, mental health and society’s relationship with alcohol. This purpose manifests as an elegant CSR scheme called Days Duty. This is a self-imposed “duty” of 2% on all sales, which is donated to “organisations that empower fresh thinking towards mental health.” As our collective awareness of mental health issues grows, this CSR back story has the potential to enhance the brand’s appeal to customers.

Days Duty - Brand purpose

Days Duty is a reason to like Days Brewing but, for most people, it probably isn’t a reason to buy Days beers. I buy Days beer so that I can drink and drive. I buy Days beer so that I can enjoy a couple of cold ones on a school night and be still sharp for work in the morning. These are the jobs that people “hire” Days beers to do. Whilst improved mental health is a huge and hugely worthwhile cause, it’s unlikely to resonate with buyers of alcohol-free beer as much as storytelling around the quality of the product and the jobs it does for its consumers.

Corporate Social Responsibility is not the same as organisational or brand purpose. Purpose influences big decisions. It’s fundamental. CSR is a framework for giving something back, or for offsetting the undesirable consequences of doing business. It’s important but not usually that important. It’s unlikely to be a reason to buy, but it can be a reason not to avoid. CSR tends to be the stuff of back stories. However, a well-considered and relevant CSR programme can add to brand appeal.

Medium-sized brand purpose

Brands get into trouble with brand purpose when they overreach and forget themselves. More importantly, by focusing on purpose they forget their meaning. Brands aim too high and are quickly reminded of their lowly status in people’s lives. However, the Colgate and Days Brewing examples above hint at a potentially fertile middle ground for brand purpose.

With a little bit of imagination, the functional or emotional benefits of a product or service can be articulated as a statement of brand purpose that sits somewhere between small p and big P.

For Colgate that purpose is about giving people confidence when they open their mouths. It’s the small p purpose of Colgate toothpaste but, as a medium-sized statement of brand purpose, it provides a platform of consistency for brand innovation and extension. That same statement of purpose would apply to Colgate mouthwash for instance.

Days Brewing has wrapped up all of the jobs that consumers might hire an alcohol-free to do in a medium-sized statement of brand purpose that is attractive, entirely relevant, and so sincere that it gave the brand its name. They talk about brewing beer for people who want to “do more with their days”. Again, that’s a brand platform with potential.

Purpose that operates at this medium-sized level is perhaps the baby bear’s porridge of brand purpose. It provides a just right territory in which brands can have meaning beyond the core utility of their product or service, whilst remaining attractive, relevant and sincere.

Loose ends

The increased attention given to brand purpose can be attributed to a number of factors.

Firstly, marketing people are always drawn to the new, shiny thing. That sounds more pejorative than it’s meant to be. You wouldn’t want a marketing team that wasn’t keeping pace with new developments. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to look before you leap. Influencer marketing and TikTok aren’t fit for the purposes of many brands. Nor is purpose.

Secondly, there’s an argument that there is demand for brands to be operating on a higher, societal plane. That, for an emerging generation of consumers, environmental and/or social purpose really is a strong reason to buy otherwise mundane brands. This might be true in some instances but the frequent backlashes when brands get it wrong bring to mind the words of David Ogilvy that, “Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” You’d be wise to take it with a pinch of salt when people in focus groups encourage you to bet the house on brand purpose.

Thirdly, I have a suspicion that, in some instances, latching onto a higher brand purpose is a means for marketers to assuage some guilt. It’s no longer heresy to say that capitalism is the source of the social and environmental problems that brands with purpose try to address. Companies and their brands are guilty to varying degrees of extraction and exploitation, and it’s natural for any marketer with a conscience to want to address that. The trouble is that there’s an inherent hypocrisy to asking people to think as citizens whilst continuing to act as consumers.

Finally, I deliberately haven’t mentioned the concepts of “mission” or “vision” in this post. It’s easy to tie yourself in knots with the jargon of brand strategy. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference between a statement of brand purpose versus a brand vision or a brand mission statement. I could probably come up with definitions for these three concepts that puts daylight between them. However, I take a pragmatic approach to brand strategy. The fewer the moving parts in a strategy, the easier it is to communicate, remember, and therefore execute. It might offend the purists but I don’t think it matters what you call it as long as it does the job.

If you found this useful, maybe take a look at What Marketing Does Best, which includes further commentary on how misuse has devalued the idea of Brand Purpose.

For a brilliantly clear, sensible and pragmatic take on Brand Purpose, particularly of the medium-sized variety, read Brand Purpose Without All The Nonsense by Andy Whitlock.

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