Whether a brand is guided by a higher purpose for world-changing, selfless reasons, or it simply has a well-established (commercial) purpose of meeting a certain need at the best of its abilities, the danger of falling into a sizeable purpose gap is real.

But what is this “purpose gap” and how can brands tackle and manage it?

Brandingmag sat down with two purpose specialists, to answer this question and to find out more about purpose and how can marketers and brands mind the gap and not fall into the trap of empty words. Scott Goodson (Founder and CEO) and Chip Walker (Head of Strategy) lead StrawberryFrog with purpose at the forefront. Even more, Scott and Chip co-authored the book “Activate Brand Purpose”, in which they explore purpose and the ‘purpose gap’ in more depth. Here’s what they have to say:

Brandingmag: What is the meaning of brand purpose and what is a ‘purpose gap’?

Scott Goodson

Scott & Chip: Brand purpose is the higher-order reason why your brand or organization exists.

The test of purpose is not whether it is met rapturously when it is unveiled by the leadership team, but whether it is still being used as a rudder in the water by the staff months later. The gap between those two is the ‘purpose gap’. If, after time, it’s vibrant and alive, that’s the sign of a successful purpose activation. If not, then it’s a sign that something didn’t connect and requires a fresh look.

Bm: Are ‘brand purpose’ and ‘higher purpose’ the same thing?

S&C: They are often used interchangeably. That said, we tend to think of ‘higher purpose’ as a broader term that can apply to corporations or other organizations, such as non-profits and NGOs, who need a higher purpose to guide their overall strategy and organization. While ‘brand purpose’ is a more specific term that often refers to the purpose of individual brands like Tide or Pampers.

Bm: Can purpose drive anything other than just momentary, CSR-like, PR buzz around a brand?

S&C: Absolutely! Purpose is increasingly used by CEOs as a guiding principle for company strategy and an organizing principle to align all stakeholders around a shared mission. CHROs use purpose to aid in change management and employee engagement. And CMOs use purpose not just for external comms, but to guide everything from audience selection to product development.

Bm: Is there any noticeable effect that purpose can have on a brand’s reputation? What about its bottom line?

Chip Walker

S&C: We did a study in 2019, with RepTrack (formerly The Reputation Institute) that measured consumers’ perception of brands’ ‘purposefulness’ as well as brand reputation. We found that purpose and reputation are correlated, though not identical. Many brands perceived to be highly purposeful also have strong reputations. But note there are plenty of exceptions – for example, Apple and Amazon have strong reputations but are not seen as highly purposeful.

There have been several studies that show purposeful companies benefit financially. Probably the best one is this one from Harvard Business Review, “The Kind of Purpose that Makes Companies More Profitable”.

Bm: How can brands measure the purpose gap and when is the best time to do it? Can it be done internally?

S&C: Yes, it can be done internally. The way we help clients measure the purpose gap when launching a movement is by assessing whether or not the movement is still being adopted and used by front-line staff 12-18 months after it launches.

The purpose gap is an internal measure – and we measure it upon the launch of a purpose-inspired movement inside a company, and again several months after the launch.

Bm: What questions can you ask to measure purpose and what results should brands expect when engaging with this process?

S&C: We measure the purpose gap by surveying employees on key questions, such as:

  • understanding of the company purpose and movement;
  • feeling like they are living the purpose;
  • degree of participation in the movement;
  • level of energy and enthusiasm they have for the purpose.

The kind of results brands can expect depends on the success of their activation efforts. Engagement with the higher purpose several months after launch can be high based on a successful rollout, or enthusiasm can quickly wear with a lukewarm rollout.

Bm: Purpose can be a catalyst for brands, but can it also be used as a filter for every decision-making process (e.g., brand and marketing strategy, hiring, product development, pricing, etc.)?

S&C: Yes, increasingly brands use purpose not simply to guide things like CSR, but to inform strategic decisions like brand strategy, targeting, hiring, and product development.

Bm: If you were to explain the importance of purpose and the “gap” in two phrases, to convince a brand leader of their importance, what would those two phrases be?

S&C: Purpose is your brand’s North Star. Measuring the purpose “gap” tells you whether or not your North Star is doing its job.

Bm: Brands, purpose, and values go hand in hand. Are there certain (brand) values that are elementary (even mandatory) when purpose is at play in the commercial space? We’d start with ‘truthfulness’; anything else?

S&C: Authenticity – an overused term, but it matters when we’re talking about higher purpose because purpose needs to be genuine, and too often it seems fake and leads to purpose washing.

Cover image source: Alex Radelich