How to master brand purpose

Senior Creative Strategist, Luke Weston, discusses how defining and owning your brand purpose is key to success.

Luke Weston
By Luke Weston
Posted 30. 01. 2018
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It seems that every brand is talking about their ‘why’. In today’s crowded marketplace a clear definition of this ‘why’ has become arguably the most critical factor in a brand’s success. But what are we really talking about here? Are we witnessing a new era of more caring and responsible brands, more in tune with the wants of society and their customers? Or is ‘why’ just the buzzword of the moment in a long line of short-lived marketing strategies?

So what is Brand Purpose?

Put simply, it’s the reason a brand exists beyond just making a profit. It should be an enduring yet concise statement of what the brand stands for, its mission, or how it can enhance its customer’s lives. Once well defined it should inform every aspect of the brand experience and drive its growth in the future. A brand purpose is very often the emotional ‘hook’ that sets them apart for customers, establishing a strength of relationship to the point where customers simply couldn’t imagine life without it. Author David Hieatt argues that “the most important brands make you feel something. They do that because they have something they want to change. As customers, we want to be part of that change… we love purpose-driven brands!”

Perhaps one of the original purpose-led brands was The Body Shop. Anita Roddick was a pioneer when she launched a beauty and cosmetics brand driven by her staunch social and ecological beliefs back in 1976, when brands with purpose were very much in the minority, rather than the mainstream. Arguably the brand’s sale to L’Oréal in 2006 resulted in a dilution of this core purpose. We hope that the brand’s new owners Natura can reignite their purpose, reinvigorate the brand, and take the fight to successful competitors like Lush.

The original purpose-led brand, The Body Shop
78% of consumers believe brands should address the issues facing us

Why now?

Most of us at some point seek a higher purpose in life, but this has accelerated in recent years with a growing distrust of the establishment and a dramatic shift in consumer’s attitudes to brands, fuelled by the economic crisis, environmental issues and recent developments in global politics. We now see a generation who are looking for meaning and direction in their own lives and for influence, kinship and guidance from the brands they interact with and the purchases they make.

With this influence comes responsibility and consumers now expect brands to shape culture rather than merely reflect it. Where previously consumers may have been satisfied with a sense of authenticity, or stories of provenance or craftsmanship, now ‘78% believe brands should address the issues facing us’ (Stylus, 2016). The stock brand pledges around sustainability or ethical production are no longer enough to sway today’s consumers; they’re searching for brands with a uniquely compelling purpose and crucially, one that is evidenced by the brand’s behaviours.

Footwear brand Toms and optical brand Warby Parker are great examples of brands that practice what they preach. Both operate a ‘one for one’ model where for every product sold another is donated. Cleverly, especially in the case of Warby Parker, this ethical mission has not come to wholly define the brand, but is merely one pillar within a sophisticated offering, remarkable also for its distinctive personality, communications and innovative approach to their physical spaces.

Toms' One for One scheme

Author Aaron Hurst suggests we are operating in what he has defined as a ‘Purpose Economy’, where consumer preferences have evolved to prioritise personal growth or a higher meaning over materials goods. But it also rings true with the accepted profile of Millennials and Gen Z’s who are switched off by traditional forms of advertising and brand speak, instead valuing more authentic connections and seeking to make a difference through their purchase choices. Brands with clearly defined choices are catnip for this new generation of principled consumers!

Another factor at play is the commoditisation of brands, products and services in an ever more sophisticated and crowded landscape. Technology and innovation is advancing at a staggering rate, but greater transparency for brands and consumers alike facilitates greater comparison and a ‘me too’ approach, which ultimately leaves brands struggling for relevance and differentiation.

How are brands responding?

Simon Sinek said in his now famous TED talk, Start with Why, “people don’t buy what you sell but why you sell it.” It’s easy for a purpose-led brand such as Patagonia or Warby Parker to articulate its ‘why’ but for some brands whose origins are less virtuous, it can take time and money to develop this until it resonates with consumers.

Might this be because there’s a clear distinction between a purposeful and a purpose-led brand? Take Airbnb, you could argue that initially, this was only a purposeful brand, established as a platform to unlock unused accommodation, enabling the budget conscious to travel the globe. It wasn’t until 2013 when they began to consider their strategy for growth that they hit upon their purpose which would “alleviate the universal human yearning to belong”. After months of discussion, consultation and focus groups, ‘Belong Anywhere’ was born – a purpose so simple and effective, that it ended up driving a whole re-thinking of the world’s attitudes to travel, ownership, even property, and made Airbnb the world’s biggest accommodation provider without any accommodation!

The Airbnb belong anywhere billboard

Key to the delivery of a brand’s purpose is, of course, its people. And for this to succeed it is critical the brand’s internal culture aligns with its purpose and that staff are highly engaged to drive innovation and creativity, and in turn, superior customer experiences. However, recent Gallup research found that only 29% of Millennials are engaged in their jobs and just 27% believe in their companies’ values. Brands such as Yoox Net-A-Porter and Dyson have addressed this head on and launched internal universities that recruit and nurture talent; instilling their brand purpose and ensuring staff live and breathe this as brand ambassadors rather than merely employees.

Beware the purpose trap!

So far, so good, certainly from the perspective of the discerning consumer, but where do we draw the line? It would seem that some brands have interpreted the purpose brief as an invitation to influence the social and political dialogue of the day. In their haste to get in on the action some global brands have come unstuck by dipping into causes that are not perceived to be authentic. Recently the likes of Pepsi (remember Kendall Jenner’s ill-judged street protest) and Heineken (building bridges for the morally opposed with a beer) have got themselves into hot water over campaigns informed by a brand purpose that seems to have little or nothing to do with their brand ‘truth’.

Opening your world Heineken advert

In an era of public sector privatisation, browser cookies and facial recognition where brands exert ever more influence over our every day lives, are we happy for them to take on such a vocal role? On the contrary, Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoors brand Patagonia would argue that ‘if you’re not pissing off 50% of the people, you’re not trying hard enough’ and it’s this polarising approach that can result in meaningful impact. It’s certainly a brand that practices what it preaches… potentially jeopardising their bottom line, at least in the short term, by encouraging their customers to buy fewer products rather than more! Its repair initiative, amongst others, is evidence of its commitment to the environment and its purpose.

Patagonia mending studio

With this determination to effect change there is great potential to address some of the negative narratives in our culture and create compelling purpose-led brands and products within previously ‘undesirable’ categories. We’ve seen this work to great effect with the likes of period underwear brand Thinx or SK-II skincare in China, which has sought to redress the negative perception of women who chose not to conform to cultural ideals by marrying early.

Sk-II skincare advert
In the retail sector, the most compelling and impactful brand purposes are often the most simple

Having said all of that, a brand’s purpose need not be a worthy mission statement seeking to affect societal change. In the retail sector often the most compelling and impactful are the most simple, those that resonate with their customers because the brand is so carefully nuanced and tailored to their needs they simply couldn’t imagine life without it. The key is consistent and engaging implementation, and developing an experience strategy that permeates every touchpoint, supported by a characterful personality, communications and a suite of carefully considered services.

Our work for Mamas & Papas is a prime example of this approach. The brand’s purpose was to give young families the best start in parenthood, and this informed an experience where the role of the store, regardless of format, was to provide a sanctuary for these new mums and dads that reassured and inspired. The offer was carefully curated to deliver on this purpose at every touchpoint, through an edited range, relevant content, hosted events and a range of helpful services that established M&P as the indispensable brand partner on the parenting journey.

Mamas and Papas

So where does this leave us?

A strong, well-defined and executed purpose is the foundation of a brand that cuts through and resonates in an era of savvier, better informed and more fickle consumers. But defining a meaningful purpose can be a minefield. Especially so when retrofitting to an existing brand, savvy consumers will see through the ‘brand speak’ and will likely be turned off by the inauthenticity of the message. This might lead to a backlash from consumers – ‘purpose fatigue’ – as customers become tired of virtuous brands looking to influence them in their day to day lives – something to watch out for!

What does the future hold?

All cynicism aside, there is great potential in a future where brands are driven by purpose. Some of the world’s biggest brands are utilising it to drive a generosity of spirit that goes beyond the profit imperative. Elon Musk is open-sourcing his technology to ensure his vision of a fossil-free future comes to life, Ford is focusing on a future defined by mobility for all, not the number of trucks they sell, and Google is acting as an educator, not just a service provider, as they offer up their digital knowledge to all through the Google Garage we designed with them. Now we just need everyone else to follow suit.

How to get it right: 5 key steps to ensure you are a successful, purpose-led brand

  1. The doormat principle: if it can’t be written in 3 lines or less, it’s probably not worth saying!
  2. Beware the purpose trap: you don’t have to save the world.
  3. Stick to your brand ‘truth’: don’t dip into causes that appear inauthentic.
  4. Be consistent: ensure your purpose permeates everything you do and informs every touchpoint.
  5. Purpose comes from within: take your employees on the journey with you and they’ll be your finest ambassadors.

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