The death of brand purpose

And why it's time something smarter took its place

If us marketers know anything, it’s how to beat a good idea to death.

For a prime example, look no further than ‘brand purpose’. From BrewDog to Patagonia, Airbnb to Persil, Deloitte to 3M – and countless brands between – since its arrival in the late noughties, brand purpose is a horse us marketers have ridden…and ridden hard.

The basic premise is this: Brands who go out of their way to tell/show us they are 'doing good' will be rewarded with our affections and wallets.

And, for a number of years, the numbers seemed to back the premise:

  • 89% of consumers are more likely to have a positive image of a brand with purpose (Cone/Porter Novelli 2019)
  • 78% would tell other customers to buy from brands with purpose (Cone/Porter Novelli 2018)
  • 28x faster growth for B Corps compared to the UK economic average (B Corp 2018)

For a while it seemed CMOs and their agencies had stumbled upon the dream formula: “If you do some good (and shout about it), they will come”.

Death by overstretch

But like any fad, it’s not long before you can smell it's gone past its sell-by-date. And we seem to have reached that point with brand purpose.

Whether it’s Hellmann’s claim to have discovered the higher purpose of mayonnaise (eyebrow raising), M&S and its LGBT-themed sandwich (cringeworthy) or Bud Light’s transgender influencer debacle (an epic face-palm) – too often overreach by clawing marketers has left brand purpose devoid of any real meaning.

It has become the mother of all bandwagons for brands to jump on and wave frantically at an increasingly skeptical crowd.

Death by fabrication

Then there are those who are downright disingenuous. Call it ‘purposewashing’, ‘greenwashing’, or good old-fashioned making sh*t up – there seems to be no brand us marketers can’t invent a higher purpose for.

In recent years we’ve had Bohoo’s ‘For The Future’ sustainability campaign (their one of the world’s largest fast fashion brands, btw), BrewDog’s toxic workplace fallout (good for trees, bad for factory workers) and Gucci’s recently dropped claim to be “entirely carbon neutral” (proven to be 100% false).

And that’s before we get into the advertising shenanigans that big tobacco, gas & oil, and global airline companies have been getting up to of late (barefaced attempts to persuade us they do actually care about our health and the planet).

These are just some of the reasons why a recent Havas study found 72% of consumers are tired of brands claiming they want to help people when they really just want to make money.

Death by bad marketing

The final nail in the coffin of brand purpose is the simple fact that, more often than not, it’s simply bad marketing.

Instead of an insight-driven approach to positioning the brand – using the trusted 3 C’s model that looks for the sweet spot of (i) what the company is best at; (ii) what the customer is looking for; and (iii) what the competition isn’t providing (DIFFERE – brand purpose assumes the answer must guessed it, purpose!

As marketing professor Byron Sharp put it during a recent interview on the subject:

“As a marketer I worry that it leads to the sort of advertising a 12-year-old kid would come up with in a high school assignment. ‘Buy this brand because it will help children in Africa’. If all brands do that it’s very boring and not creative. And it’s so easy to copy.”

In our excitement over the shiny new thing, too many marketers have neglected the principles of their craft – reinforcing a view of marketing as the art of brazenly polishing even the worst of turds.

Time for something smarter

If brand purpose is dead, what should we replace it with? We would argue, something more thoughtful and honest – something we like to call 'smart purpose'.

It’s an approach we’ve been adopting for a number of years (before we came up with a snazzy name for it) – based on the following principles:

1) Purpose belongs to the company, not the brand - It shouldn’t be invented for an ad campaign or rebrand. It should be for the people first.

2) Define what kind of ‘purpose’ this really is - Is this your core purpose, a ‘special cause’, or just being a responsible business?

3) Make it an inside-out thing - Resist the temptation to go all 'secret squirrel'. Involve your people in the process.

4) Tie it back to the core business - Steer clear of ‘left field’ stuff that feels disconnected from your core products/services

5) Don't confuse purpose with positioning - Once the company has pinned it down, then let marketing figure out where it fits with your brand

These principles not only ensure brand campaigns avoid the traps of overreach and fabrication. They also allow space for something meaningful and useful to emerge - a purpose that will stand the test of time.

Because while brand purpose (an idea invented, sold and sustained by the marketing industry) might be on its way out, the notion of business being about more than the bottom line isn’t going anywhere.

Call it ‘purpose’, ‘ESG’, ‘responsible business’, ‘stakeholder capitalism’....the pressure on companies to do less harm, and more good, is only going to ratchet up.

The challenge for those tasked with communication is to be smarter – and a bit more honest – about how we tell that story to the outside world.

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