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What is brand purpose (and do you need one)?

August 2019
Read time: 6 minutes

Guy Bevan – Brand Strategist

A passionate customer marketing strategist with 20 years’ experience in brand marketing and communication strategy, Guy helps brands to move prospects and participants from passive observers to active members, helping to grow businesses and disrupt sectors.


What is brand purpose?

A strong brand purpose, according to creative agency Burn the Rule Book, ‘sets out a company’s intent to change the world for the better and connects with consumers on a personal level’. It is ‘the reason for the brand to exist beyond making money’. According to another definition, it is, ‘the why of your business’, rather than the how or the what.

Why might you need one?

Brand purpose is an interesting and potentially powerful idea because it can help everyone involved with your business to feel more positive about it. People like to work for a company whose values they can respect and admire. Journalists and customers like stories about companies that practise what they preach. Investors too may be motivated by an ethical promise that sits alongside the commercial potential of a business. Survey after survey points to a rising ethical awareness among employees and consumers.

"When looking at engaging with a business, people are increasingly interested in its social, ethical, environmental and even political aspirations and activities."

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue, according to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study. So-called ‘belief-driven buyers’ are now the majority across markets, age groups, and income levels. In the same survey of 8,000 people, 53% say they believe brands can do more to solve social ills than governments, and 54% believe it is easier for people to get brands to address social problems than to get government to act.

‘Brands are now being pushed to go beyond their classic business interests to become advocates,’ says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of PR and marketing consultancy firm Edelman. ‘It is a new relationship between company and consumer, where purchase is premised on the brand’s willingness to live its values, act with purpose, and if necessary, make the leap into activism.’ In such a climate, a clear sense of brand purpose can be a powerful point of difference.

An additional point here is that tech companies are traditionally often quite low-key when it comes to developing or projecting a sense of their business as a brand. ‘In an industry racing to define the future, the short-term rush of product marketing too often steals focus from the slower wheel of brand development,’ says Elisabeth McCumber of brand strategists Madison Ave Collective. Indeed, ‘not having a brand’ is top of entrepreneurial expert Larry Alton’s list of key mistakes that tech startups make.

Purpose, as an approach to positioning, can therefore be a helpful lens to help a business to correct that deficit of brand thinking. And it’s especially useful in scale-up tech businesses, where blue-sky ideas like mission and purpose can help set the business culture and ethos on a positive track.

Best practice examples

Companies that are often cited for their strong purpose would include Lush, which produces ethical body products. It campaigns on clearly related issues such as responsible sourcing and cruelty-free product testing. Virgin’s ‘screw business-as-usual and let’s see what’s possible’ approach is a celebration of innovation and lateral thinking.

Another really good example would be the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which since its inception has always been committed to supporting environmental causes. As Patagonia’s Marketing Director Alex Weller told Marketing Week, ‘It’s the will of the ownership and it’s the will of the organisation to use this important platform as a brand to do more than generate profit.’

Patagonia puts it money where its mouth is in a variety of ways. It allocates a significant proportion of its profits to good causes, and when it benefited from a large tax break thanks to Donald Trump’s tax policies, it gave all the additional money away to environmental charities. The company refuses to take part in Black Friday discounting and instead has donated its entire profits from the day ($10m in 2016) to charity.

How to go about defining your brand purpose

  • Think about what you want to improve in the world – and how your business is aligned with that. An effective brand purpose will fall logically out of your business offering. Talk to clients, staff and other stakeholders, perhaps carrying out some qualitative research.
  • Create an emotional connection with a simply worded statement. The purpose needs to be an inspiring thought that can inspire and enthuse people, not a rational or fiscal target.
  • Walk the line between a big idea and a vague one. Ideally, your purpose will be a thought that you can slice and dice in different ways, to be applied as easily to a product rationale as to a CSR policy. But if the wording is too generic, it could quickly cease to lose all meaning or resonance. Nike’s purpose ‘to inspire every athlete’ (with the additional thought that anyone with a body is an athlete) is simple enough that it can be used in a variety of very different ways.
  • Don’t preach. Provide people with a thought they can be inspired by and buy into. A message that is too didactic or worthy is likely to have the opposite effect.
  • Sense-check your purpose. Think hard about whether the purpose is a credible and authentic representation of your business. Can you really walk the talk in every area of the business – or are you setting yourself up for a charge of hypocrisy? 
  • Be ready to give evidence of your stated purpose. Speak out on issues that matter to you, sponsor aligned activities, and think about what you can do to get this sense of purpose into every aspect of your culture and activities. Look at ways to communicate your purpose and incorporate it into sales and marketing materials too.

Ian Percy, in his book The Profitable Power of Purpose, suggests the ‘Tell Me Again’ test as a simple way for distinguishing business case and brand purpose. His idea is to imagine yourself as a retired business owner who is asked by their adult children or their grandchildren to explain what you did at work all day. Which of these stories would they most want to hear:

  • ‘Tell me again how you achieved a year on year double digit return on capital.’
  • ‘Tell me again how you helped cure a disease that was killing a million children a year.’

For a pharmaceutical company, both of these descriptions may relate to the same scenario, but the emphasis of the message in each is very different.

Pitfalls to avoid

The dangers of a lofty and unrealistic purpose statement are easy to see. A company that sets itself an impossibly idealistic ethical standard will attract ridicule and anger if it is found to fall short of those goals. Similarly, expressions of brand purpose that feel forced or inauthentic are likely to be given short shrift by consumers and investors too.

‘What a brand says is less important than what it actually does,’ writes marketing guru Mark Ritson. ‘Is the positioning driving every aspect of the company’s activities? Purpose, like any other attempt at positioning, should align absolutely with how a brand operates.

‘Time and again we encounter the lofty, admirable sheen of brand purpose only to discover it flakes off with even the slightest scratch to reveal a darker, more commercial sub-surface beneath.’ The annals of marketing are littered with stories of brands whose ethical failings have been found to be crassly at odds with their stated purpose, or whose sudden attempts to appear purposeful come across only as cynical virtue-signalling.

As marketing leadership expert Thomas Barta puts it: ‘Doing good isn’t a marketing thing. It’s not about your CSR report, or the one-off sponsoring of whatever is hot in the world of purpose. It’s about the entire business model and how your firm serves society.’ 

"Part of the purpose of any business is to survive and turn a profit, of course, and there is no shame in a more traditional focus on maximising returns and delighting customers."

Some experts argue that profit and purpose are inextricably linked. Others, however, point out that purpose is much more credible and effective when it is native to a business, hard-baked into its DNA from the outset, rather than retro-fitted to a traditional commercial model.

As Andy Weller of Patagonia has said, ‘You can’t reverse into a mission and values through marketing.’ And as marketing expert Mark Ritson has said, ‘It’s crucial we draw a thick red line between businesses like Patagonia that were founded from purpose and those that originated with a pure profit agenda and then applied brand purpose to secure more of it’.

But the earlier stages of a tech business are the very best time to reflect on these questions, while you still have the relative freedom to define who you want to be and what you want to stand for. 



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