Why your brand doesn’t need a purpose

But your company really does

Purpose: it’s all the rage these days.

Whether it’s the headline-grabbing efforts of companies like Patagonia and Toms, the rise of community membership groups such as B-Corp and Business for Good, or the recent statement by the influential Business Roundtable that business is about more than shareholder value – it seems purpose is the talk of the town.

Even the Queen joined the fray during her recent Christmas speech, hailing the “sense of purpose” shown by young people in responding to the climate crisis.

By all accounts, purpose is here to stay – and looks set to play an increasingly important role in how brands relate to their audience.

A tale of two purposes

For us at ABA, this is undoubtedly good news. We’ve long believed that what an organisation is about should run deeper than simply ‘making stuff’ or turning a profit. (It’s why we adopted the tagline Building brands with purpose back in 2016 – our statement of intent to work with brands who are about more than just the bottom line).

At this point you could be forgiven for assuming that – as a brand agency – this article is all about expounding the virtues of what is known as ‘brand purpose’. It isn’t. In fact, we would go as far as saying we’re not sure we really believe in ‘brand purpose’.

Before we unpack why, here’s a very potted history of this now popular concept…

Boosted by the 2012 arrival of ‘Grow’, Former P&G CMO Jim Stengel’s seminal piece on how purposeful brands outperform non-purposeful ones – and buoyed by research showing positive consumer response to brands that wear their commitment to social or environmental issues on their sleeve – the idea of ‘brand purpose’ came into being.

Today, agencies like ours are often tasked with finding new ‘purpose’ for long-standing brands – usually captured in a pithy purpose statement and series of feel good ads. The result is consumers across a wide range of sectors (both B2C and B2B) are regularly persuaded to choose brands that align with their values, and encouraged to feel good about doing so.

Yet there’s a danger that the brand horse ends up pulling the purpose cart. Why is that a problem? In a world where purpose is everywhere – and of increasing importance – it will matter even more that those words really mean something; that there’s more to a company’s purpose than a pithy statement or warm, fuzzy ad.

At ABA, we believe there is another, better way. It’s called ‘organisational purpose’.

We believe ‘organisational purpose’ offers a more robust and sustainable approach to tackling the big P. To show that is more than simply ‘potatoes, potatoes’ – and to draw out a few rules of engagement when it comes to identifying your purpose – here are 4 principles that we believe should guide any foray into the purpose space:

#1: Purpose should be authentic and credible

Brands should be careful what they stand for. When Iceland bravely launched a campaign for Christmas 2018 against the destruction of rainforest (in order to produce palm oil products), they put their head above the parapet – only to have it knocked off weeks later when it emerged they had removed their brand label from palm oil products (so they could meet their pledge of having no own-brand food lines containing palm oil).

The dangers of ‘purposewash’ are real. If organisations take a hollow or cynical view of purpose, not only will it fail to really make a difference to the world but the bonds of trust between the brand and its people – both employees and customers – will end up suffering another rupture.

#2: Purpose should be driven by leadership

For any organisational purpose to stand the test of credibility, and of time, it must be set by its leaders. The process can certainly involve input from external consultants or agencies (a role we play for a number of our clients), but it must ultimately be the leadership who choose which path to take, and who stand by that decision in the months and years to come.

When it comes to embedding purpose within the fabric of your organisation, this won’t realistically happen if it’s left to an external agency. Again, it’s the leaders that must be the driving force.

#3: Purpose should involve some sacrifice

The real test of whether an organisational purpose is the ‘we really mean this and stand by it’ kind, or more the ‘this is really about the bottom line’ kind is to consider whether the new purpose will end up costing the organisation anything.

Because anything we truly believe in – whether personally or corporately – will at some point involve sacrifice. Whether that’s walking away from a potentially lucrative business opportunity (as domestic cleaning brand Method famously did in its early years), changing your governance structure, making tough decisions when it comes to the supply chain, or going ‘above and beyond’ in support of charitable ventures…any genuine purpose must prove itself beyond mere words and aspirations.

#4: Purpose shouldn’t be confused with positioning

Here’s a challenge. Read an article advocating ‘brand purpose’ and for every mention of the phrase, swap it for ‘brand positioning’. Does the article lose its meaning? Or are we really just giving the tried and tested principles of marketing a new lick of paint?

The real danger with conflating ‘brand purpose’ and ‘brand positioning’ is that organisations end up believing the only way to win the positioning game is to position themselves around purpose. What good, old fashioned Business School thinking will tell you is purpose might be the right answer for your positioning…but it might not be.

Using our methodology (which we’re happy to label as ‘good, old fashioned’) we have helped clients of different shapes and sizes tackle these two crucial issues:

• Defining their organisational purpose
• Identifying their brand positioning

There are instances where the two converge and the brand positions itself around purpose (as with Academies Enterprise Trust and Oasis) but there are instances where purpose is important but doesn’t drive brand positioning (as with Lantern and Vibrant Partnerships).

In all the excitement about ‘brand purpose’, it can be easy to miss the obvious strategic question: ‘Is purpose where we can win?’ If your purpose doesn’t quite hit the high notes of relevance for your audience – or fails to really differentiate you versus your competitors – the likely answer is that purpose needs to play a more behind-the-scenes role when it comes to your brand.

Keeping those feet on the ground

At ABA, we believe in helping organisations become their best possible selves. And we believe that by taking them to their genuine purpose, they’ll have the best shot at achieving that goal.

It’s a process that involves challenging organisations to consider what their purpose truly is, and helping them identify and articulate it effectively to their people (customers and employees alike). But it’s also a process that involves drawing on the expertise of those outside of brand and marketing land (like Blueprint for Better Business and SDG Compass), who offer excellent resources to help ‘ground’ that purpose and ensure it doesn’t end up little more than pretty hot air.

Purpose is here – and it’s here to stay. Our advice? Uncover a purpose which serves as a true ‘north star’ for your company…and then see where it fits within your brand.

Resist the temptation to do it the other way around.

Dave Vann is the Managing Director of ABA