The on-purpose brand

The on-purpose brand


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 purpose-led approach to brand, I argue there’s no more effective way of building or rebooting a brand in the hearts and minds of its people and its customers.

So, why have a purpose?

Well, if I am glib, the answer is in the question. As opposed to what, not having a purpose?

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. I believe the latter has 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 edition 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...


  1. The key to unlock the code for twenty-first-century business success.
  2. 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. I’m all for discussion and challenging received wisdom, but there may be more to it than that...

  • There are more ‘points’ 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 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 so-called virtue signalling, greenwashing or simply overreaching — After all, how life-enhancing is a shampoo, really? (Note: I don’t have enough hair to answer this one).

Or when a men’s razor brand tells men to be better people, well, it’s no surprise that some people react badly (‘Who made you the ‘goodness’ police?’). Ref. Is this a cynical use of ‘purpose’? Well, the defence that it got people talking about serious issues, however valid, still raises the question... is this purpose, or just shameless attention seeking?

But, while using these examples to argue against purpose is entirely 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.

Because, as noted in Stengel’s number 6, above, it is...

‘Not social responsibility or altruism, but a program for profit and growth based on improving peoples lives’.

There’s a good deal of research that suggests that people who themselves have a strong sense of purpose are more attractive to others (hardly a shocking revelation). Someone who is driven, engaged, even passionate can be much more rewarding to be around.

Why would brands be any different? Particularly when brands are brought to life by the behaviours of groups of people in an organisation — and great brands have an identifiable voice, presentation and behaviours.

If you have a purpose you can believe in (even love) — and you actively live up to it — it is easier for others to connect with and believe in your brand.

This sense of connection is part of what ultimately adds up to a building a better brand.

That’s a purpose that motivates me. So, when some are loudly calling ‘time’ on purpose, I believe it is an idea, and an ideal, which cannot go out of fashion. Rather, people are more hungry for, and in need of a sense of purpose and ideals to unite us than ever.

Agree/disagree? Are there thoughts you would add? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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