The concept of brand purpose has lately been taking on a lot of water. After widespread growth of the practice of creating a purpose-based brand — driven largely by the expectations of millennial and Gen-Z consumers who appear to care about what a brand stands for and what it believes — it’s recently become trendy to badmouth brand purpose. Pundits and academics I respect — from Mark Ritson to Byron Sharp to Bob Hoffman — have come out against it, saying everything from their belief that brand purpose is “moronic,” all the way to saying it will be “the death of brands.”
I have also stated that many a brand purpose end up being nothing more than hot air. A brand purpose without any substance is exactly that: insubstantial. It’s easy to say that you’re in favor of things, you support causes, you believe in progressive ideas. But it’s another thing entirely to actually behave that way.
In addition, most companies view their brand purpose as having to be something “worthy.” But in truth, your brand’s “why” needn’t have anything to do with world peace or saving the planet.
But the debate about whether a brand purpose is a good or bad idea, up to now, seems to be missing the most important point. That is, there can be actual, tangible value that a purpose can provide to the marketing organization itself. Because, aside from the external message itself, a brand purpose will have value for internal reasons, for consistency, alignment, and incentivization.
- Your purpose helps internal teams and employees. Your purpose provides clarity to internal stakeholders and constituencies. It gives meaning to the work they do. It helps them assess what they should be doing, and identify what they shouldn’t, as well. There’s nothing worse than saying you’re for something — but demonstrating the opposite, in-market.
- Your purpose helps keep you consistent. Just like any good, solid strategy, a purpose should drive a level of consistency. It helps keep you and your team driving toward something larger and more strategic than your individual initiatives. And it helps align all your disparate programs and projects into something more holistic, versus keeping them one-off and transactional.
- Your purpose gives you something to fight against. One of the more powerful aspects of a purpose is that it provides a cause and an enemy to position against. This is why a “problem/solution” campaign is one of the most enduring types of PR efforts. Showcasing an issue that most would agree needs to be solved gives a brand a big and sticky platform to highlight its programs and efforts.
- Your purpose provides a basis for incentivization. At the end of the day, a company only gets value from their purpose if they incentivize it. That is, not just say what you’re in favor of, but tangibly support, encourage, and put money behind it. Purpose should guide the company’s actions and behaviors — and, importantly, who gets promoted and who gets fired.
There’s no doubt that high-minded brand purpose campaigns have become over-used in marketing, and many of them are weakly connected to the brand, poorly differentiated, and insubstantially supported. But that’s no reason to shoot down brand purpose as an approach. Let’s remember these positive purposes for brand purpose — and the beneficial effect it can have on an organization and its overall marketing.
*Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Insider 4/4/22