The on-purpose brand

February 21, 2019

The concept that successful brand and business are 'built on purpose' has been with us for a while. But is it an idea who’s time has passed or is it still — er, fit for purpose? In spite of some, I believe misguided, attacks on the approach, there is no more effective way of building or rebooting a brand in the hearts and minds of its people and its customers.

Why have a purpose?

Well, if I am glib, the answer is in the question. As opposed to what, not having a purpose? But it is true — Once businesses existed for shareholder value or profit only. Purpose driven branding aimed to deliver more meaning and more value to all stakeholders. It also happened to deliver competitive advantage and thereby, greater growth and profit. Seeing the successes, many rushed to discover their higher purpose, or cynically claim one. The latter has, to a degree, led some commentators and ‘influencers’ to call the end of the era of purpose driven brands. My view? Rumours of the death of purpose-driven branding have been greatly exaggerated.

The ideal brand

To understand the value of purpose I go back to Jim Stengel’s book Grow... which opens with his definition of an ideal (or brand purpose). This is not new, my version of the book dates to 2012, but given that his original definition addresses so much of the criticism of purpose-based branding, it’s perhaps even more relevant today than when it was written...

The key to unlock the code for twenty-first-century business success.
The only sustainable way to recruit, unite, and motivate all the people a business touches, from employees to customers.
3. The most powerful lever a business leader can use to achieve competitive advantage.
4. A business’ essential reason for being, the higher-order benefit it brings to the world.
5. The factor connecting the core beliefs of the people inside a business with the fundamental human values of the people they serve.
6. Not social responsibility or altruism, but a program for profit and growth based on improving peoples lives.

Why are people arguing against the concept of ideal-driven, or purpose-led brands?

Every movement is going to have its detractors and particularly if something is seen as being just another trend. And indeed if something is being applied as ‘following a trend’ then it deserves our derision.

  • There are more ‘marks’ awarded on social media for being controversial, or being anti than there are for being pro.
  • It’s very easy to confuse the misuse of ‘high moral purpose’ (think ‘virtue signalling’) with a sense of common purpose.

To what purpose?

Purpose needs to unite and motivate, so it has to have an appeal to our basic needs and wishes. Most of the negative media I have seen is directed at brands engaged in virtue signalling, greenwashing or overreaching — After all, how life-enhancing is a shampoo, really? But, while using these examples to argue against purpose is understandable, it entirely misses the point. Because if ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, the culture built on shared values and common purpose is the surefire way to build healthy relationships internally and externally.

And yes, overreach is likely to invite backlash, but understanding and defining your purpose can be simple and straightforward. The ideals that drives a business can be a simple desire to make life better in whatever small way that makes you relevant and key to your most loyal customers or clients.

This is what ultimately adds up to a better brand.

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