I almost didn’t write this blog. What hasn’t been said about brand purpose over the past decade?
But then I started reading that advice. And realised you might just want something clearer and simpler.
So here’s 4 takeaways that cut through a decade of musings on ‘purpose’, to help you understand what it means for the brand you are building.
1. Having a purpose benefits your business in a multitude of ways, so you do need one.
Defining a clear and compelling purpose has been linked in research to:
It's an investment that packs a punch.
Purpose is also critical as a means of connecting all of your marketing efforts.
Purpose is the great uniter. If your marketing efforts aren’t being developed with the overall purpose of the organization in mind, you’re likely to have a whole lot of messages resulting in a whole lot of nothing in the market.
Roy Spence, ‘It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For’
2. Purpose is about defining the positive impact your brand has. It's just the answer to the question: WHY does your brand exist?
It’s much easier to think of it this way than trying to get your head around the multitude of descriptions used: brand purpose, social purpose, north star, your calling, vision, social mission...
These are just labels used in different ways by different people and you’ll find all sorts out there. Everyone has a favourite term they’re trying to coin. Brands themselves use the labels interchangeably. Dove, for example answers their WHY in this way:
We believe beauty should be a source of confidence, and not anxiety. That’s why we are here to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realise their full potential.
3. Purpose is not something new, but its definition has morphed.
Aristotle was all over this when he said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your calling.” He knew the power of knowing your WHY, without calling it purpose.
In my 2009 version of Roy Spence's book he wrote:
At the intersection of the passions and strengths of the organization and the needs of the world stands a great purpose.
In 2011, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in HBR about a different model for business: ‘creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.’ Promoted as the way to ‘fix capitalism’ they told us that,
The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se.
All of this is still sound advice. When you write your WHY, consider what your business is good at doing and the positive impact it can have on people.
But what Porter and Kramer introduced with the notion of societal value has been taken to an unhelpful extreme. There’s now a sense that a brand purpose should purely be about your positive social and environmental contribution.
Take these much-quoted examples:
'Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.'
'Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.'
'Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.'
We are told that this is the right approach for all brands – any brand.
And this is where it goes wrong.
What if you sell bubble teas. Or recruitment software. Or family photoshoots. Are you really saving the planet? Solving homelessness? Unlikely.
And that’s ok. Purpose is about defining the positive impact your brand has. All businesses can have a positive impact on lives. You just need to center it on your CUSTOMER first and be TRUE to what your business does. Go back to Aristotle – this intersection between your talents and your customers' needs. Your brand purpose has to balance both.
Because, if you’re not authentic, if you claim to be doing something that’s seen to be way beyond your remit, then customers see right through it. Losing their trust and provoking their wrath is a proven way to make a negative impact on your bottom line.
Multiple brands have received backlash for this - like Starbucks over race relations, Audi over equal pay, Pepsi and their woke ad.
I would not go as far as Mark Ritson:
Patently, the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic. I do not want Starbucks telling me about race relations and world peace – I want it to serve me a decent coffee in pleasant locations.
… but he has a cautionary point.
4. For most businesses, having a positive impact on society and the planet should be part of HOW you do things, but not the answer to your brand purpose – WHY you exist.
Undertaking sustainable business practices and contributing to a societal issue that aligns with your brand and community are part of what doing good business means today. According to Cone, 91% of global consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a good cause, if price and quality are similar.
But this isn’t WHY you exist, it’s HOW you do things.
Instead of looking at brands like Tesla and Patagonia and feeling inadequate, look at the brands that are the most valuable in the world. The top 36. None of them have a WHY statement that is focused on saving the planet.
What they do have are purpose statements that center on the positive impact they have in their customers’ lives, that are broad enough to also inspire social, community and sustainable initiatives.
Why Nike exist is 'to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world. *If you have a body, you’re an athlete.'
Nike’s WHY is their starting point for all sorts of initiatives that build their brand. Marketing, product development AND social and community impact. Like their focus on empowering young girls, with initiatives like Made to Play. And their recent donation of their whole inventory of Air Zoom Pulse, a shoe designed for ‘healthcare athletes,’ to frontline workers combatting COVID-19. Bringing inspiration to the former and innovation to the latter.
Then it’s just about taking your positive impact on lives further in HOW you do things – not pretending that you are in business to save the world.
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