Purpose and all its meanings has been the centre of much debate (and some confusion) in the branding and advertising world recently. Here’s my attempt to cut through this, and describe ways in which organisations can generate real benefits from having a brand purpose.
Creative Pool states that “By our count, 22 out of 30 entries [which won Grand Prix at the 2019 Canne Lions advertising festival] were primarily driven by societal purpose.”
Since then, arguments have erupted between the believers and non-believers in the benefits of brands having a social purpose.
People in the advertising world have also questioned the sometimes shaky proof behind the claimed commercial benefits to having a social purpose for consumers to identify with. Meanwhile some major brands are taking social purpose to heart, and some are actively looking to shed parts of their business which don’t have a positive purpose for society.
It’s getting murky
There is some confusion here. Firstly, brand purpose does not equal social purpose. ‘Purpose’ is being used as a catch all for these two different meanings, leading to confusion and disagreement. Many organisations, for example charities, are driven by a clear social purpose. A brand can, however, have a legitimate purpose which does no good whatsoever to the world at large. Apple’s classic ‘Think Different’ tagline is an often-quoted example of this, a strong purpose which creatives identified with, but which doesn’t profess to save the world.
Secondly, advertisers are rightly numbers-driven, but having a brand purpose is about more than trying to increase sales purely by consumers empathising with it. A brand purpose is a powerful way to shape company strategy, align employees within a business, as well as to attract the best new talent. And it can also help to build a following among consumers, though this won’t necessarily reap rewards straightaway. The advertising world is increasingly getting involved in brand strategy, and in order to be effective I believe it needs to take a more holistic view in this area.
The pitfalls and the dark arts of social purpose
Having a social purpose which is not consistent with the company’s actions can be highly damaging. While BP does invest in renewable energy, the bulk of its profits still come from fossil fuels. This calls into question its claim to be helping to ‘drive the transition to a lower carbon future’. Its sponsorship of cultural institutions has been called out as greenwashing, leading to negative publicity, boycotts and high-profile resignations at the institutions it sponsors.
Creative agencies have been called out for their complicity in this area. Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, has warned that Unilever won’t work with agencies involved in ‘woke washing’, ie in campaigns which promote social purpose without making any real societal impact.
There are examples of agencies walking the talk however – a growing collection of agencies (97 at the last count) have signed a letter stating an aim to disclose and eventually divest of clients seen as ‘causing the climate emergency’. Individuals and agencies please join me in signing up here.
Purpose in the business world
To be truly authentic and effective, brand purpose should permeate all parts of the business. In the business world, brand purpose is more widely accepted as having real value than it is in adland. Businesses which are seen as prioritising a clear purpose are more likely to have had positive growth, to have engaged in major transformation initiatives and to have launched new products.
Light at the end of the tunnel: where to start with developing a purpose
If you’re tired of the P-word by now I don’t blame you. The good news is that it needn’t be that hard to identify a purpose for your brand, whether it be large or small. How to do it is beyond the scope of this article and may require external input, but here are some ways to get started:
Get to grips with your company’s strategy, and what need your customers have that your company can uniquely fulfil.
These elements, along with aspects of brand personality, can then be distilled into a core brand purpose, that can be used to inform and unify many aspects of the company’s activities.
A social purpose may naturally feed into the brand purpose. I for one want to see businesses make a more positive impact on the world.
Now, what’s your purpose?
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