Our Senior Strategic Planner Jay Reid delves into brand purpose

Brand purpose: brands adopting a higher purpose that is greater than their basic function. Some say it’s the answer to all of our marketing ails. Some say it’s just another marketing trend with no real substance. Both arguments have at least some merit. But which camp is right?

To answer this question we first have to answer two fundamental questions on brand purpose:

  • What is the commercial value of adopting a brand purpose?
  • Should all brands consider adopting a brand purpose?

If you want the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) answers it would be that brand purpose has the potential to unlock substantial commercial value for most brands, provided certain conditions are met and certain pitfalls avoided. If you want the more detailed and more practical answers, read on…

What is the commercial value of adopting a brand purpose?

There are numerous studies to support the argument that brand purpose is an effective way to create commercial value. Chief among them is Jim Stengel’s ten-year Grow study, which found that brands with a purpose out-performed the market by almost 400%. But what about the validity of these studies?

Critics of brand purpose often claim that studies of this nature simply retrofit the concept of brand purpose onto already successful brands, rendering their findings void. But for every tenuously retrofitted case study there exists a genuine example of a successful brand purpose strategy.

In order to prove that brand purpose was the driver of success in these genuine case studies we must first define what makes for a successful brand purpose strategy and then explain how successful brand purpose strategies like that actually unlock commercial value in practical terms. So, let’s do that…

If you were to examine all of the most successful brand purpose strategies, the first thing that would strike you is that they are all grounded in the basic function of the brand in question. This is important because unsuccessful or disingenuous brand purpose strategies tend to be so far removed from the brand’s basic function that they fail to have any impact on consumer’s purchase decisions. We won’t go into any great detail here, but this was the fatal flaw in the infamous Pepsi Refresh Project.

Successful brand purpose strategies, on the other hand, all take a brand’s basic function and elevate it. They craft it into a more emotive and aspirational higher purpose that allows the brand to stand for something. That allows the brand to communicate and engage with people in more meaningful ways. That allows the brand to add value to people’s lives through more ways than just what they sell.

Below we can see four examples of very successful brand purpose strategies. Notice how in all of these examples there is a clear link between the basic function and the more emotive brand purpose.

OK, great, that’s what a successful brand purpose strategy looks like. And that gives the rest of us a good rule of thumb for developing our own brand purpose strategies. But the question still remains – How exactly does such a strategy unlock commercial value for brands? Well, for starters:

  • It provides direction to the business as a whole, informing everything from corporate strategy to organisational culture, thus helping the business make better, more consistent decisions.
  • It improves employee engagement by giving their work a sense of purpose and them a sense of belonging to something bigger. Incidentally, this also helps attract and retain top talent.

 

  • It inspires innovation and NPD by pushing the brand to seek out and design ways to fulfill their purpose beyond their basic function and core competencies.
  • The resulting innovations open up new markets and audiences for the brand, thus growing their revenue and diversifying their product portfolio.
  • It brings consistency (and therefore efficiencies) to the brand’s marketing by unifying all activities around one single minded idea – in this case the brand purpose.
  • It facilitates and encourages emotional advertising over rational advertising, which has been proven to be more effective by numerous studies (chief among them the work of Binet & Field).
  • At the same time (because it’s grounded in the brand’s basic function) it creates associations for the brand in the minds of consumers that have a direct influence on their purchase decisions.
  • So, clearly successful brand purpose strategies can unlock commercial value in a multitude of ways. Which brings us on nicely to the second question we posed at the beginning of this piece…

Should all brands consider adopting a brand purpose?

Given that brands primarily exist to create commercial value and that (as we’ve seen above) adopting a brand purpose can unlock considerable commercial value, it makes sense that all brands adopt a brand purpose. However, only if they can meet the following conditions:

  • There’s an understanding of the basic function the business performs and the need that fulfils
  • It is possible to ladder up from this basic function to a more emotive and aspirational brand purpose
  • The brand purpose will be relevant to the entire organisation, not just the marketing department
  • The brand purpose will inform and guide every single business function; from HR through to NPD

 

If you can’t manage any of the above then a brand purpose strategy isn’t right for your brand. If you can’t get to a higher purpose that’s grounded in your basic function, you risk your brand becoming too unrelated to what you actually sell. That won’t be good for sales. If you can’t ensure that your brand purpose will be embraced beyond the marketing department, you risk coming across as inauthentic. That also won’t be good for sales. It’s a bit of double edged sword.

If you can meet all of the conditions for a successful brand purpose as outlined above then, yes, adopting a brand purpose has the potential to unlock considerable commercial value for your brand. But if you can’t (for whatever reason) meet these conditions then adopting a half-hearted brand purpose strategy has the potential to backfire on you, big time.

If you’re wondering whether or not a brand purpose strategy is right for you, or if you’ve recently implemented a brand purpose strategy that hasn’t quite taken off the way you’d hoped it would, why not grab a coffee with Jay (our resident strategist) and pick his brains for an hour? He’s buying!