We’ve all seen it. It’s like watching a slow-motion car crash or a supertanker heading toward a dock that can’t turn in time. The purpose-based brand campaign that goes all wrong, often turning good intentions into embarrassment and sometimes even making the brand into a pariah.

Over the last few decades, as the industry tries to learn and execute the idea of ‘purpose’, we see a lot of brands getting it right but many, many more getting it wrong. And sometimes the work is actually quite good but the company still gets pilloried in the marketplace.

So what gives?

It all boils down to one thing: Purpose shouldn’t just live in the marketing department. Instead, it should be an internal and external cultural imperative for everyone. Purpose should drive the entire company and brand behaviors of which marketing is only one manifestation.

If the company’s culture isn’t driven by the brand’s purpose first, beware because your purpose marketing journey could become a rocky ride.

One first step is to stop thinking of purpose marketing as only a form of cause marketing. Instead, use your purpose to drive your company’s culture, the way the products are made, the kind of people hired, and the value that product brings to people’s life. If we start to think of purpose as coming in a variety of sizes – big P and little p – P/purpose, if you will, (read about it here) it will free you up to do the work that leads to the marketing/communications/advertising work, not the other way around.

Is your company in the business of saving whales or is it to deliver an emotional or rational, tangible benefit of the brand and the products it produces? These are key questions.

It has been well documented that a powerful purpose or mission within a company will create a motivated, more successful team and a more profitable business. I’ll leave these arguments to the Harvard Business Review but suffice it to say, this isn’t an opinion anymore.

As my old client, Eric Reynolds, the CMO of Clorox at the time, put it, “The amount of time management teams are spending reacting to dramatic changes in the world is unprecedented. Purpose becomes the compass against which you’re making decisions. We talk purpose at the highest level strategy meetings. It affects hiring practices, suppliers you work with, how you reward product development, and of course, marketing.”

Essentially, purpose can be an engine in the company that puts its values into the world and creates behaviors based on those values.

When it’s just a marketing campaign, and Kyle in accounting, Susan in logistics, and Murray the spreadsheet guy, don’t know anything about it or, in fact, maybe they see it for the first time when it runs as a campaign, man, that’s when the trouble starts.

Probably the biggest punching bag on this one is Gillette’s take on toxic masculinity. A very worthy effort but one that didn’t seem to show up in the company’s product offerings. Why, for instance, do they charge women more for a comparable razor than they do men? Little things like this can kill you. So, standing for a new kind of manhood could be very powerful for them but they should first apply this purpose throughout the entire organization and then do the ads.

Here’s an example of getting it right with a lower-case ‘p’ purpose. Years ago, working on Travelocity, the online travel site, my agency at the time saw the opportunity for them to be a virtual travel companion for customers during their trip, the purpose was to move beyond being transactional and instead become “a constant companion on your entire trip.” To accomplish this, there was a need to create a rock-solid guarantee that when you booked your trip, everything would be correct and if it wasn’t they’d make sure they worked with you to get it right. (In those days, travelers would sometimes book a trip and the reservations would just sort of go piffle and you’d be screwed.) We launched the Roaming Gnome campaign, a fun way to put an emotional framework over rational benefits. This bought time for the company to develop the guarantee and to realign the company around the broader purpose.

Once the guarantee was in place, that’s when the campaign changed to explicitly communicate that “you’ll never roam alone.” Company realignment first, campaign second.

Sales tripled because of the transformation of the company and brand backed by the guarantee over just a few years.

“Purpose shouldn’t just live in the marketing department. Instead, it should be an internal and external cultural imperative for everyone.”

Okay, so enough with why, let’s talk about how.

The first and most obvious thing is to identify and articulate your brand’s matrix of purpose, values, and customer value. You can’t make these things up and all of them probably already live somewhere in the halls of your company, often in the vision of the founders or leadership. Look there first.

Next, implement those values and articulation throughout your organization. This is where marketing can really shine, maybe even work with HR to help make this tangible and real within your company. These are fun creative opportunities too for an agency and a client.

Create a decision filter based on your values; there will often be a complex set of factors to weigh to come to any decision, but at least you’ll always know why you’re doing something. Is it for the bigger picture or do you need to be pragmatic for some reason? Purpose helps make this process more efficient.

When you think of your brand as a set of behaviors based on a set of values, it turns purpose into a very simple proposition.

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