Brand purpose has shifted from a ‘nice to have’ to an expected part of a brand’s DNA, particularly for many younger audiences. In fact, a 2020 Zeno Strength of Purpose study of 8,000 global consumers found they are four to six times more likely to trust, buy, champion, and protect those companies with a strong purpose over those with a weaker one. However, at the same time, there has been quite a backlash against brands who seem to be jumping on bandwagons or latching themselves onto causes that they seem ill-fitted for. So, how to get this right?

What is a brand purpose?

The first thing to say is that brand purpose is not the same as CSR (i.e., a corporate, box-ticking exercise that can be hived off to the HR department with initiatives often picked seemingly at random to show a KPI is being hit). Purpose is quite different from that. It should be the raison d’etre, part of the brand’s DNA, like a message embedded in a stick of rock. In other words, getting your team to paint a school is great but simply does not constitute purpose. It’s also not a badge of honor, worn prominently in reaction to a big news event. It’s just something you do because it’s what drives you and is part of your everyday ethos as a brand.

As Simon Sinek puts it: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”. Sinek has inspired 28 million YouTube views by starting with a fundamental question: Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike?

As he puts it, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with ‘why’. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the ‘why’ behind it.

Why does it matter?

If you don’t have a purpose you risk growing irrelevance
With social consciousness at an all-time high, the importance of brand purpose has only grown. A host of studies have shown this unequivocally. The Zeno Strength of Purpose study highlights that 70% of Gen Z and Millennials believe a brand should have a purpose they personally believe in compared to 48% of Boomers. As younger generations’ financial muscle increases, those brands that don’t have a clearly defined purpose will become increasingly irrelevant. It’s not just younger consumers. Everyone is more conscious – the rise of social media has propelled this forward, driving knowledge and information sharing which, in turn, holds brands responsible. In other words, there is nowhere to hide.

It’s the right thing to do
Companies are after all part of society and purpose adds value to society. If you’re not looking to make the world a better place then what are you here for? Whether you are an individual or a brand this should be a key focus. If it’s not, get out of the way and minimize your impact. Consumers are going to expect brands to be doing the right thing for the greater good.

It impacts the bottom line
The evidence is also clearly there, that consumers will buy more from brands with purpose. According to one study by communication firm Porter Novelli, researchers gave participants a series of purpose-driven attributes and then asked what actions they’d take if a company had those qualities:

  • 78% were more likely to remember a company with a strong purpose;
  • 78% were also more likely to want to work for the company;
  • 72% were more likely to be loyal to the company;
  • 72% also said that they’d be more likely to forgive the company if it made a mistake;
  • 66% said they’d consider the company’s purpose when deciding what to buy;
  • 71% said they’d buy from a purpose-driven company over the alternative (if cost and quality were equal).

It’s a great recruiting sergeant
It is also a way of attracting talent. People are your business – therefore, attracting and retaining the best talent is more important than ever before. Having the right purpose can help act as a recruiting sergeant for a brand – ensuring you will attract the kind of like-minded people who would want to support the same cause.

Brand purpose is part of a wider corporate move from shareholder value to shared value
In his book, The Interaction Field, Vivaldi CEO Erich Joachamstiler demonstrates how important brand purpose is to modern forward-thinking companies with brands needing to look beyond profit alone as their barometer for success. As he describes it, it is part of a move from ‘shareholder value’ to ‘shared value’. Imagine a world where the success of the brand is the positive impact it has on society and the world at large, rather than financial growth metrics. Purpose (if done well) provides brand differentiation, stand out, and reason to believe.

Getting brand purpose right

There are five considerations in knowing where to start in order to get brand purpose right.

1) Brand value fit
How aligned is the ‘purpose’ the brand is communicating with the values of the brand itself?

A perfect example of this would be the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. I was lucky enough to work with Dove 15 years ago on the launch of their ‘With Dove’ relationship marketing program. Its focus was to let the members dictate the content and tackle the issues women face within the beauty category. It was ahead of its time and the brand continues to break boundaries and taboos. As a brand focused on natural products, the focus on natural beauty was so well aligned. It really has resonated with so many millions, led a national conversation, and spawned countless imitators. This was particularly significant in an industry that had long been known for promoting an artificial sense of beauty. They have focused more recently on challenging what masculinity means with Dove Men+Care. Whereas Gilette was seen to have got this wrong with the ‘Best a Man Can Be’ campaign because it was at odds with the brand’s previous messaging. Unlike Dove’s campaign for real beauty, it was reactionary, rather than revolutionary.

2) Audience interests/drivers
Next, how relevant is the ‘purpose’ the brand is communicating to its audience? Are they talking about it in a way they would care about?

A great example of a brand whose product is completely tied into its value system and made relevant for its audience is the juice brand Blueskies. They supply a significant proportion of own-brand, fresh-cut fruit to the UK market ($130m turnover) and also have their own branded juice and ice cream brands. Founded in 1997, Blueskies have had a clear value system laid out from birth. Rather than exploit supplier countries, they invest profits into sanitation and schools, and support the communities that supported them. They tell compelling stories about their suppliers, clearly outline their strategy in a way that is obvious to follow for their audience, using three clear messages: diversity, respect, and positive return. They also articulate it in a way that clearly links back from purpose to product. As the website states: “We believe that care for our people breeds care for our fruit, which in turn fosters a natural respect for the environment and the communities where we exist.”

3) Joined-up communication
Is the brand communicating the ‘purpose’ in a way that suits their wider personality and messaging?

A brand that arguably falls down in this regard is Amazon. This is a business that is built on brutal efficiency and logistics and has had a series of scandals about its environmental credentials and working conditions. The sudden explosion of ads promoting their fun work culture and its commitment to the environment comes across as insincere and seems more like reactive PR rather than genuine beliefs. This can be contrasted with a brand like the Body Shop, whose business’ original vision was to sell products with ethically sourced, cruelty-free, and natural ingredients. Its tone of voice has always reflected its simple no-nonsense approach and clear focus on ‘business as a force for good’. The brand has a very strong core message and underlines it with every campaign, every product, and image.

4) Mutually beneficial
Next, does the ‘purpose’ being communicated stand to gain from the involvement of the brand? Or is this just about brand image?

A brand that confidently got this right is Lego. The Danish toymaker’s inaugural LGBTQIA+ set, titled Everyone Is Awesome, was a really important cultural moment that created tremendous good feelings within this community. The lead designer explained: “Growing up as an LGBTQ+ kid – being told what I should play with, how I should walk, how I should talk, what I should wear – the message I always got was that somehow I was ‘wrong’. Trying to be someone I wasn’t was exhausting. I wish, as a kid, I had looked at the world and thought: ‘This is going to be OK, there’s a place for me’. I wish I’d seen an inclusive statement that said ‘everyone is awesome’.”

Lego achieved this in spades with this set. A well-thought-through execution, consistent with the ethos of the brand, benefited both the cause and the perceptions of this evergreen brand.

5) Non-marketing activities
Is the ‘purpose’ being communicated simply marketing? Or has the brand also backed their words up with genuine action?

Black Lives Matter was a great example of companies showing their support on social media whilst really not having particularly inclusive or diverse recruitment policies. Many black people within these companies expressed a huge amount of frustration about this issue. It followed a series of clumsy interventions by brands on the topic of race relations. In 2015, Starbucks launched one of its broadest initiatives ever: Race Together. The campaign was supposed to spark a national conversation about race relations by having baristas write the phrase “Race Together” on Starbucks cups. Quickly, the campaign became the laughing stock of the internet, not least because it was fronted by a white billionaire owner. They also weren’t walking the talk – only having 19 black execs in the business.

Brand purpose is not a box-ticking exercise but is something that should be woven into the fabric of a brand. Those that don’t have a clear purpose risk irrelevance in an increasingly values-driven age. In order to be effective, it needs to run deep through the brand, otherwise, any marketing efforts will be ineffective and perhaps rightly be viewed as pointless at best and cynical at worst. For brands to succeed with effective purpose-driven marketing, they need to consider: the fit of brand values, audience interests, joined-up communication, being mutually beneficial, and non-marketing activities.

As Afdhel Aziz, author of Good Is The New Cool puts it: “As brands strive for differentiation, relevance, and growth, a clear purpose brought to life in compelling ways is often the difference between success and failure.”

Cover image source: Greg Bakker