Releasing the purpose kraken

What purpose can do for your brand...and what it can't

It seems the kraken is back.

What began life as a mythical Norwegian sea monster has recently been revived in contexts as varied as football, Government conspiracies, and even a COVID variant. (It is, not surprisingly, a term that tends to be used more by Americans).

In many ways, purpose has become the kraken for CMOs and their agencies in recent years – a secret weapon deployed in pursuit of brand differentiation, customer loyalty and market share. This narrative began in 2012 with the publication of ‘Grow’ by former P&G CMO Jim Stengel and has been successfully pushed by advertising agencies and management consultancies from Seattle to Singapore ever since.

But a lingering question remains for many marketers: “Is purpose the answer for our brand?” As an agency committed to putting purpose to work, we feel duty bound to provide an honest reply – to sort the wheat from the chaff, to separate facts from fluff.

If you’re thinking this could be the year you ‘release the purpose kraken’ on your brand (a phrase you’re unlikely to utter, admittedly) here’s our take on what purpose can do for your brand – and what it can’t.

What purpose can do for your brand ('kraken power')

Speak to deeper, emotive needs
Since the 1960s, we’ve known that emotion trumps reason when it comes to purchasing (like, every time). Whether it’s the John Lewis Christmas ads, Simon Sinek’s ‘start with why’, or corporates like Coutts and NatWest focusing on ‘doing good’ – the fact is emotion sells. And what could be more emotive and meaningful than speaking to those deeper things, like changing someone’s world or saving the planet?

If you can do it with sincerity (where leaders are living it out) and credibility (where it’s connected to the product/service you offer), why wouldn’t you want to tap into the power of purpose for your brand?

Turn customers into advocates
Much has been made of the link between purpose/values and customer loyalty. But the real opportunity isn’t increasing loyalty, it’s sparking advocacy. According to research by Cone/Porter Novelli, 78% of consumers would tell others to buy from a purpose-driven company – with 68% more willing to share social content from these brands compared with others.

Let’s face it, we will always be more motivated by a cause or mission than we will a product or service. Connecting our offering to a bigger ‘why’ can only serve to transform more customers into advocates.

Answer the big employee questions
There’s a new ingredient in the employee ‘package’; a new set of questions employers must answer if they want to attract and keep the best talent. According to recent research by McKinsey, 70% of employees think their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Add to that the growing number of Millennials and Gen Z employees prioritising sustainability over salary, purpose over promotions – and a picture emerges of a workforce that won’t buy into working for an employer who can’t credibly answer those deeper questions.

It’s a picture we are witnessing first-hand. Increasingly, companies are coming to us for help in defining their purpose and values – not for their customers, but for their employees.

Reveal the soul of the company
Consider the contrasting fortunes of BrewDog and Bain & Company over the past couple of years. The former has gone from darling of the purposeful brand crowd to ‘greenwashing’ pariah, while the latter has traded its image as a profit-hungry corporate to that of a caring, employee-led business. We are living in the age where consumers want to know what lies behind the façade of the brand. They want to look into your soul.

Adding purpose into the mix of your brand allows you to tell that story, to prove to the outside world that you really are one of the good guys (more below on what happens if this turns out to be a false claim).

What purpose can't do for your brand ('kraken myths')

Replace good old fashioned positioning
We’ve written about this before
. For all the good that purpose can do, the damage it can cause includes serving as a poor substitute for brand positioning. The problem is too many marketers conflate purpose (the ‘why’ behind what we do) with positioning (the space we want to occupy in the minds of our customers). The upshot are brands that either fail to differentiate themselves (in a space where purpose is everywhere) or struggle to speak to the real needs of their audience (who may not have social impact matters at the top of their agenda).

If purpose is to be genuinely powerful for a brand, it must be deployed with finesse – not as a blunt instrument used to beat customers into submission.

Polish the turd of a bad product/poor service
We have spotted a worrying trend in recent years. Purpose used as a sort of ‘miracle cream’, applied to the rash of a poor quality product/service offered at an unrealistic price point. A recent Deloitte Global Marketing Trends report revealed that price and quality remain the main drivers of consumer decision-making – with purpose and values serving to aid differentiation and engender greater loyalty.

In short, not even the most glossy (or sincere) purpose can paper the cracks of an offering that is over-priced or under-delivering.

Give everyone the goosebumps
Behind every stat lies a ‘shadow stat’ that casts doubt on the first. And so it is with purpose-led branding. A recent YouGov poll of UK consumers revealed 43% would be no more likely to buy from a brand with a purpose or stance on social issues (even if they agreed with this stance). A further 28% said their purchase would only be influenced if the views of the brand directly aligned with their own.

It’s a timely reminder that pinning your brand colours to the purpose mast is no guarantee for success. A good cause rarely offers an effective substitute for the timeless principles of marketing (4 P’s and all that).

Cover the sins of the company
‘Greenwashing’. ‘Purpose-washing’. ‘Impact-washing’. Call it what you like, the truth is purpose can be a double-edged sword for a brand. Whether it’s McDonalds and their ‘recyclable’ paper straws fiasco, BrewDog and its ‘culture of fear’ scandal (which ultimately cost them their B Corp accreditation), or Unilever being criticized by investors for its “obsession with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of the fundamentals of the business” – it seems the more purposeful they are, the harder they fall.

The lesson for marketers is this: If you’re about to use purpose as a fig leaf to cover the indiscretions of the company, it’s probably best to think twice.

In summary, if you are considering going ‘all in’ on purpose for your brand, the question to consider is this: “Are we about to release our ‘kraken power’…or fall for the ‘kraken myth’?”

Finding the answer will probably require leaving the shallow waters of the marketing team or creative agency (who can create a wonderful brand, but will struggle to uncover an authentic purpose) and venture out into the depths of the company and its leadership (where authentic purpose and values are formed).

Ultimately, in order to draw customers into the fold for the long-haul, you will need to offer your customers meaningful answers to the following questions:

1) 'Why are you here?' [PURPOSE]
2) 'How are you different?' [POSITIONING]
3) 'Why should I care?' [PROPOSITION]

If you can do this with authenticity and relevance, then you might just be onto something powerful – even kraken-like – for your brand.

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