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Brand Purpose: A Success Essential, or a Marketing Indulgence?

The hot marketing topic of the moment is undoubtedly brand purpose.

Sworn by and revered by giants of the commercial world such as Unilever CEO Alan Jope, brand purpose has fast become an essential accessory that everyone, from the biggest brand names to the smallest, simply won’t be seen without. 

All in all, it seems that brand purpose has become the holy grail of communications. To forget to tell the public exactly in what way you are helping to shape a better world is to deny yourself a profitable quarter… Or is it? 

So what exactly is brand purpose? 

Brand purpose means a brands reason for being; it is the noble driving force behind their every thought, word or action. The purpose should serve communities, and seek to benefit the wider world as a part of its mission. 

Often brand purpose fits into one of several categories such as environment, body confidence and charitable giving. 

The Body Shop, for example, is a veritable beauty behemoth and it’s chief differentiator? Cruelty free and ethically sourced beauty products that care, has long been the fair-trade horn that The Body Shop has blown to attract conscious consumers from far and wide. 

An example of their brand purpose in action can be seen with their recent campaign to aid the “waste pickers” of India – a refreshing twist to the ever popular war on plastic in the media.  

Another example of a well-executed brand purpose can be seen with Starbucks and their commitment to corporate responsibility. Starbucks has an all encompassing corporate responsibility policy that includes environment, social impact, ethical sourcing, youth and skills and health and wellness. 

Starbucks’s investment in communities continually sets them apart from other coffee conglomerates, and helps contribute to the positive public image that Starbucks works hard to maintain for its loyal band of customers. 

But… Who is this really for? 

Despite the wide-spread embracing of the concept of brand purpose, there is a small rumbling of dissent among marketers who question its true value, and ask “Who is this really for – the client, the audience… Or the marketer?”

It’s undeniable that getting swept up in the hype is only all-too-easy. As a marketer, the idea of brand purpose is truly utopian. All of a sudden the job is not simply centred around generating sales and driving traffic, no, those are now mere trifles. It is about sculpting a new, kinder future. It is about CHANGING THE WORLD.

It hurts to say but, could it possibly be that brand purpose is less about business, and more about making marketers feel… Evangelical? 

Surely there’s some truth behind it?

Brand purpose hasn’t just appeared out of thin air – its infamy comes from some degree of proven success. 

One effective use of brand purpose is in giving brands – particularly behemoths of the commercial world – a human feel, and acting as a driver for social change. 

Some of the greatest marketing campaigns of our time have been in support of a cause bigger than brand. An example of this is Nike’s support of NFL star Colin Kaepernick in the face of mass outrage. 

Kaepernick protested social injustice in the US by taking a knee during the national anthem, triggering a huge backlash. Nike, however, rallied around Kaepernick in a truly unforgettable move that showed that when it came down to it, Nike really would always stick to their guns. 

Beyond this are brands whose very soul stands for an ethical or moral purpose such as Patagonia, Lush and Dove. Each preaching about environmental conservation, cruelty-free beauty and female confidence in turn. 

These are all brands that have leveraged their purpose to win a place in people’s hearts and homes. After all, as Kevin Roberts claims in his book ‘LoveMarks’, only brands that are loved can last. 

What’s the real impact of brand purpose? 

The big question is, is having a brand purpose an essential ingredient for brand success? Richard Shotton, author of ‘The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioural Biases That Influence What We Buy.’ thinks not. 

In Shotton’s book he picks apart brand purpose by targeting the origin of the concept, a book called ‘Grow’ by Jim Stengel. Stengel’s book claims that out of 50 brands that had the highest loyalty scores from Millward Brown’s database, the common denominator for success was that they each shared ideals, or ‘purposes’.

Shotton tears Stengels theory apart in his book, showing that the foundations on which it lay where shoddy at best, and just downright wrong at worst. In looking at the data Shotton remarked:

1. Is the data accurate?

A basic requirement is that the data being analysed is accurate. Stengel’s central piece of data is that his 50 stocks rose by 393%. But that’s not quite the case. Some of the companies in question, such as Emirates and Wegmans, are privately held, which means they don’t have a share price.

The gravest flaw though is how Stengel selected the fifty brands. He picked the best performers in Millward Brown’s 50,000-strong database. That’s the top 0.1% of brands. It’s not surprising that those brands performed well in terms of share price. If they hadn’t performed well in the past they wouldn’t be in Millward Brown’s top 0.1% of brands.

Stengel’s finding, if you re-state it at its most basic, is that brands that feature in the top 0.1% of companies have performed well in the stock-market. That’s circular logic.

Richard Shotton

So where does that leave us? 

Have we been stripped of our new-found power to shape a brighter, better future for all? Hardly. 

Brand purpose has its place in the marketing tool box the same as any other. However to forget its place, and assume that your customer cares more about your purpose than your product, is to be woefully mistaken.

They still want to know where the value lies in the product, what it can offer to THEM, not to the world as a whole – not always anyway. So whilst it can be all too easy to grab onto the idea of brand purpose for dear life just because it feels good, like Kate Winslet did in Titanic to that door (ahem, that very large door), sometimes it’s good to take a breath, slip off the door, and get back to where the people are. Because the truth is that the consumer sometimes just isn’t out there with you.

Marketing has the power to both shift thinking, and shift products – it’s striking a balance between the two that will keep your consumers on side. 

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