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A lot of sense and nonsense around brand purpose

Every brand must show attitude and pursue social goals, they say. But it's not that simple, says strategist Nina Rieke. Perhaps it often makes more sense to focus on customer needs.

Just a few months ago, there were numerous essays telling us that the crisis would change everything. And that nothing will ever be the same again. In terms of brands, too, our consumer behavior would finally change completely. Because the Corona era, like a burning glass, has made certain topics, shortcomings and blind spots in society more than clear.

Brands are a reflection of our social values and desires. However, our values have been changing not just since Covid, but over much longer periods of time. Over the past decades, we have seen an orientation towards values that stand for social and societal impact such as sustainability, responsibility and justice. Values that today more than ever should be the guidelines for authentic corporate action and less marketing rhetoric. After all, that’s exactly what customers demand: brands that take responsibility. Almost all studies agree on this point: Around 75 percent of customers want and expect this from brands today, according to studies by Havas, Brand Trust and Accenture.


The purpose discussion is much older

So the discussion about Brand Purpose is older than Simon Sinek’s popular “Start with Why” TED Talk in fall 2009. Unilever has been claiming Purpose for over 90 years, and the topic was strongly propagated under CMO Keith Weed. No wonder, because around the same time Marc Pritchard made Purpose the core element of communication and brand management at P&G. As Chief Brand Officer, Pritchard was concerned that P&G should transform into a “Force for Good and a Force for Growth. If you look closely, you can see the roots already in the Shared Value concept of Kramer and Porter, who have been exploring the topic since 2006.

When I read the other day that the Hofbräuhaus also has a purpose, namely conviviality, it was clear that the topic is literally everywhere. And so are all the misunderstandings that go along with it. Now it’s time to check: Where do we stand in terms of brand purpose – and can and must a brand communicate more meaningfully in times of a pandemic?


A buzzword with very flexible definitions

What exactly Brand Purpose is, is defined in very different ways, either narrowly or broadly. As CMO (until 2008), Jim Stengel, for example, has already championed the pursuit of a “brand ideal” at P&G, in which brands are aligned with core human values and strive to improve people’s lives. In addition to creating social impact and social change, there is a much broader understanding of purpose with the other four facets: To bring joy, to enable connections, to inspire exploration or to evoke pride. Others, on the other hand, draw a much narrower line – here a clear entrepreneurial connection to a “triple bottom line” in the sense of profit, people and planet is required. The bar is much higher than simply creating a skillful trade-off – and acting as part of the scorecard. There should be a deeper commitment behind it: in the best case a different, reformed view of capitalism as we know it. Not just a marketing gadget, a campaign stepping stone that lasts as a new motto, as part of a seasonal attitude campaign.


This obviously gives companies a great deal of freedom as to what kind of purpose they want to follow. How far they go in their commitment to it. And how deeply it is anchored in their culture. The subtle difference then also lies in what their own confession of purpose is used for. Is it a communicative attitude or a corporate culture driver? Both are possible. But often not the case. And so today, there are three different ways in which companies and brands make the topic their own.


Three forms to take up brand purpose

The “Purpose Born” are built on a strong purpose orientation, social and societal impact are the philosophy and trading maxim of the founders and determine everything the company does. These are often niche brands – better known examples are Toms Shoes, Veya, Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s. Here purpose comes from within and is part of the company’s DNA.


The “Purpose Reformers” are usually larger companies that seriously address the issue, such as Unilever in a variety of ways. Often it is brought into the company from outside, for example through a new management. This involves a lengthy transformation process that needs the entire company behind it in order to succeed and bear fruit in the long term. And also KPIs, where this can be experienced and measured. Right down to a triple bottom line.


The “purpose bluffers” confuse short-term sense campaigns and brand activism on popular social issues with purpose. What reaches maximum campaign level and is seasonally changeable is unlikely to have much effect, both on the brand and in the company’s orientation. It is therefore often described as “Purpose Washing” and is characterized by the fact that it is purely marketing and communication driven, without any further influence on the company.


Only arrogance of marketing managers?

A possible motivation for such activities is to feel less guilty about the misery of the world. So Byron Sharp, author of “How Brands Grow” recently went a step further in an interview and called it arrogance of marketing managers to believe that people are interested in what a brand thinks about a virus. A statement that is certainly provocative because it confronts an entire industry with its own egos.


Ian Murray, founder of the English research and strategy consultancy House 51, also conducted several surveys before and during the pandemic – with the realization that only 15 percent of mainstream customers believe in the social claims of brands. Even among advertisers themselves, the figure is not significantly higher at 20 percent. Even at the pandemic peak in the spring, there was no change to be seen here. He is tough on purpose messages: “Brand purpose is simply something that helps advertisers feel better about themselves and what they do. It’s about the psychological well-being of marketers, not about what motivates common buying decisions”.


That’s why it’s also true that few brands really get away with statements about saving the world without being publicly questioned. Patagonia is believed to be committed to the preservation of the planet – because they do not just sell jackets and T-shirts under this motto. It is deeply rooted in their corporate DNA. And they do much more than they say.


Clear maxim: Not only say, but do

Not only mainstream customers are generally skeptical about purpose messages. According to a US study, it is primarily younger customers who meticulously ensure that message and action are in harmony. We can clearly see this recently, when the Swedish oat milk brand Oatly got a massive headwind after Blackrock brought new investors who were politically not quite in line with its corporate concept. Here too, it can be assumed that this is only a short-term wave of indignation from a small, very sense-oriented group of customers. If you take a close look at Oatly you can see quickly: The Swedes have been on a major expansion course for some time now and have long been partly in Chinese hands. Only their appearance as a rebellious, small do-good brand that points its finger at “the food industry” makes them appear to the outside world as if they have not long since become part of it themselves – albeit a smaller one.


Will this be a stumbling block for Oatly in the future? Probably not. Because if we believe Byron Sharp, a recognized expert on brand growth for purpose, this will hardly stand in the way of reaching a larger, broader consumer base. Because for a large proportion of potential customers, purpose is much less important than they may say in studies.


Brand should help people to transform themselves

So as much as we would like to see sustainable, socially responsible action by companies and brands, we are not always able to do so ourselves. Nor do we make every purchase decision equally driven by meaning.


Particularly in times of an emerging recession, price is once again becoming a key driver – and sense is probably not the decisive factor for every category or group of buyers. Thomas Kolster, author of “The Hero Trap”, points out exactly this: it is not the buy in that counts as a purpose, but the actual purchase of the product and brand. And an answer to the question: “Who can you help me become? In other words, not the question of how the brand changes the world, but how it helps customers to transform themselves. For the brand, and especially for brand communication, this is an essential point. Not the attitude the brand takes, but the springboard it provides me as a person.


A return to what really matters

As a company, P&G has once again set itself very ambitious goals with “Ambition 2030” in 2018, also in terms of sustainability. For example, greenhouse gas emissions are to be halved by 2030, and enough electricity is to be generated from renewable sources to power all plants. P&G calls its own approach “Brand Ambition” in its model for Brand 2030, and also emphasizes that Purpose must not degenerate into a buzzword and that all brands must define and achieve measurable goals. “Ambition” as a term makes it clear that it is a long-term goal and how long and complex the path is. The German corporate side speaks of goals, values and principles – not of Purpose. Perhaps a conscious decision? Rather, it is about touching lives positively and improving them: now and for future generations. This is close to the human values propagated earlier, future-oriented and more openly formulated in terms of what companies and brands do for the individual. And makes clear how essential an old marketing wisdom is: to orientate oneself credibly to customer needs.

For many companies it is time to take a step back and clarify where they really stand in relation to the big issue of purpose. Is it really an intrinsic driver? Or is it just a campaign theme? How much does it really fit in with your own culture, internal maxims and corporate strategy? If it is a convincing attitude campaign with a clear brand reference – then call it that – instead of focusing on conceptual trends. Because Covid has changed a lot and will certainly continue to do so. But for some things, perhaps it also enables a return to what really matters. And thus makes it possible to deal with one’s own brand and strategy more honestly in the future.

The article was originally published in W&V, one of the main German advertising and communications publications on October 6, 2020.x


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