Understanding the true meaning of purpose in brands

Like Brexit, a subject close to my heart, the debate on the subject of Purpose is on a non-stop crescendo. Sticking the word “purpose” into the headline of an article that’s about something completely different is guaranteed click bait for the marketing community, in the way that “digital” was a decade ago.

And, like Brexit, both sides – as this is what it has become – are capable of persuasive argument and rhetoric.

My own view is that, in many of these articles, the language is at best misleading and at worst, plain wrong. The use of the words “higher” and “beyond” and “above” suggests a judgement that purpose is noble, profit is dirty and “never the twain shall meet.”

Whereas surely, they should work symbiotically?

A brand does something positive for the individual user. This can be practical, cognitive, sensory, emotional, or some combination. The good old benefit, in other words.

And that brand – or business – does something positive on the collective level – for the family, community, society or the world. For many businesses, this was always so, but maybe not vocalised. Changes in the world, in society, and in technology mean that this collective positive contribution – purpose, if you like – is becoming an imperative, rather than a nice to have.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can be a good place to start, but it isn’t mandatory to hitch your brand purpose to one of these if it just doesn’t fit. Brand purpose doesn’t have to be a “cause.” It doesn’t even have to be totally exclusive to your brand or company, as long as you do it in your own distinct way. But I believe it does have to relate back to the product or service your brand offers, and what it does for the individual.

A good example is what the brand Carling has done in the UK. In Britain pubs are closing at a rate of three a day, and with the high level of Beer Duty in the UK this will only continue to worsen.  A movement has started via Britain’s Beer Alliance to celebrate the positive role that Britain’s pubs play in individual lives and communities: Long Live the Local

As part of the movement, Carling have produced a music video with the band Slaves, who started in pubs, which looks at the role pubs – and beer – play in music and creativity as well as community. It’s not high and mighty, yet reflects brand belief and values, moving from the individual to the community.

All too often, purpose and “cause marketing” are used interchangeably. Two quite different ideas are being muddled:‍

  • Brand staking a stand.
  • Brands standing for something.

In the first instance, the brand declares its stance on an external, politically-charged issue – from gun control to gender equality to LGBTQ rights to body positivity. The issue may or may not have some connection to what the brand stands for in people’s minds, or what products and services it offers. The declaration is at the level of communication only, and if you look into the glass box that is the organisation these days, you’ll quickly find HR policies, logistics processes or finance practices that don’t tally with what the brand is shouting loud and proud about.

However, it’s not surprising that so many brands take this route, as more and more evidence emerges that suggests this is what customers are looking for.

For example, in the Edelman Earned Brand 2018 report,the big soundbite to come out is that nearly 2/3 (64%) of people around the world say that they “buy on belief” – a massive 13 percentage point increase over 2017. Even taking into consideration the inevitable amount of virtue signalling that this involves, the scale of the increase is pretty impressive. No wonder that the cry goes out for “brands to take a stand.”

A recent example from the UK, which might go down in history as the most unlikely brand taking a stand and achieving a huge impact, at least in the short-term, is the story of Rang-tan.

The beautifully-made commercial was originally produced by Greenpeace and would have probably sunk without a trace in the normal way of things. But it was picked up by the relatively small and unlikely retailer Iceland to use as a Christmas commercial. Iceland’s collaboration with Greenpeace, a “ban” and social media outrage got the commercial noticed on a wide scale.

No-one can deny that this was an effective act of brand activism, but I’m not sure how much it has to do with purpose. I may be wrong, but I doubt Iceland’s purpose is to save orangutans, or even to reduce palm oil in their products. These may well be related to the overall purpose, but in my book, purpose is broader than one or two campaigns on social, environmental (or even political) themes.

Purpose is connected to a company’s products or services and to its values. It can be high-and-mighty, but it doesn’t have to be. Not every brand is Patagonia. In fact, a more down-to-earth purpose that’s closer to people’s everyday lives is often easier to put into practice, starting with the co-workers. And it’s more authentic for a brand that has no history of standing on a soapbox. IKEA, a 70-year-old brand that’s purpose-driven uses the vision of its founder: creating a better everyday life for the many people. There’s a belief here that everyone, regardless of how much they earn, or where they live, deserves a good home. If we all have a smooth-running (and these days sustainable) home, this impacts on society. And this purpose then gives IKEA credibility to make a stand for refugees, for example.

The Effective Use of Brand Purpose Report 2018 from the WARC talks about the idea of “purpose” going mainstream. Here, it’s not about campaigns, or jumping on the latest cause bandwagon, but finding a genuine, unique purpose for the brand which can act as a navigation compass for the whole company. With product, purpose and profit working together symbiotically.

I started with Brexit, so I’ll finish there. The commercial Together Forever from Ancestry is a perfect example of a using a political issue that connects absolutely with the product or service offered. An excellent example of a brand that stands for something first and foremost – and then takes a stand.

Sue Imgrund is a freelance Strategic Planner with over 30 years experience in brand communications.  The brands and organizations she has worked with include IKEA, British Airways, Procter & Gamble and many others.  Sue is based in Frankfurt, Germany. To learn more about Sue’s work on Brand Strategy and Purpose please visit her blog and LinkedIn page.  You can also contact her directly here: imgrund@secretagency.de.