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In defence of brand purpose

By Max Ottignon, Co-founder, Ragged Edge.

‘Brand purpose’ that goes no further than the marketing department has been rightly criticised, says Max Ottignon. But a purpose that extends across a whole organisation is vital to a successful brand.

In defence of brand purpose

Brand purpose has come in for some criticism recently. Nick Asbury wrote a fantastic article for Creative Review asking ‘is this the end of brand purpose?’, citing campaigns of varying degrees of clunkiness from Pepsi, Heineken, Dove and McDonalds as the final nails in the coffin. Patrick Burgoyne followed it up with an evisceration of a new Cadbury’s campaign that attempts to convince consumers of its philanthropic ideology.

The key word here is ‘campaign’. I believe that brand purpose is more fundamental than it has ever been. But if it’s conceived as a communications campaign, it isn’t a purpose in any meaningful sense. And people are likely to see right through it.

Why purpose matters

Like much of our industry’s terminology, a big part of the problem comes from a range of definitions. So, let’s clear that up first. I’d define a brand purpose as an organisation’s ‘why’. Its reason for being. This is distinct from a vision – ‘what’ the organisation seeks to achieve – and its mission – the ‘how’.

Personally, I think a purpose is the most important of the three, and the one we focus on at Ragged Edge.

I like this quote from David W Packard, in a speech to HP employees in the 1960s, which explains why brands need a purpose:

“Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached.

“Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

For a purpose to be effective, it needs to guide everything a brand does, not just what it says. And it needs to come from the top. Founders set their brand’s purpose when they start their company. CEOs can redefine a brand’s purpose when they change an organisation’s direction. It’s not something set by the marketing department.

In defence of brand purpose
Brand purpose vs social purpose

For me, brand purpose isn’t the same thing as social purpose.

Warby Parker is often cited as a textbook brand with a social purpose at its heart. They believe that ‘everyone has a right to see’, so they’ve set out to help people who wouldn’t normally have access to glasses, and are unable to work as a result.

But their brand purpose transcends their social purpose. They exist to make high-quality glasses more accessible to everyone, and ‘everyone’ includes people who want to lay their hands on a pair of designer spectacles. Importantly, they’re open about this. There’s no sense that they’re using their social purpose as a Trojan horse. Indeed, most of their communications don’t even mention the social element of their offer.

I’d argue that Airbnb is also a purpose-driven brand. They exist to make people feel like they ‘belong anywhere’. It’s an idea that drives the business (not just their marketing). It’s the ‘why’ that defines what they do and how they do it, internally and externally. But it’s not a social purpose.

To go further, I wouldn’t define Spotify as purpose-driven in the traditional sense. But I think they have a clear, future-proof brand purpose: to give people access to all the music they want all the time. And they live it too. Everything they do is focused on delivering on that ‘why’.

Brands without purpose

When a brand lacks a clear purpose, it lacks direction, almost by definition. And that’s not good for business. We’ve all worked with clients where the ambition seems to change on a monthly basis. This results in brands that – in the eyes of consumers, stakeholders and employees – lack a reason for being. They become hard brands to connect with. You could argue Pepsi is a good example of this problem. Beyond the balance sheet, I’m not really sure why they exist.

It’s hard to rectify this. It involves making big, long-term decisions. You need to get every significant stakeholder onto the same page, and realign the direction of a business behind a single, lasting idea. As anyone who works in branding knows, this stuff doesn’t happen easily.

So, the natural solution is a short-term fix: a communications campaign. And at the heart of the campaign might be a big, purpose-driven idea. Generally speaking, these sorts of ideas tend to come from people in our industry, working with the marketing team but given no more than lip-service across the rest of the business.

This seems to be what’s happened in the examples Nick and Patrick justifiably criticise. No-one really believes that Heineken exists to bring people together. It’s doesn’t seem to be something that lives beyond their communications in any meaningful way.

Same thing with Cadbury’s. They’re not going to be able to convince people they’re driven by generosity. And that’s because they aren’t. In each case, this type of ‘purpose’ feels like a marketing construct, designed to get people to buy highly commoditised products. The ideas don’t have any substance.

It’s the substance that counts

Fundamentally, everything that Nick and Patrick have written is on the money. But I don’t think it means the end of brand purpose. Or even social purpose. What I hope it does mean is the end of purpose without substance. For a brand purpose to be meaningful, it needs to sit right at the centre of an organisation. If your brand doesn’t have a purpose, I think it’s worth doing everything you can to define one, and to live it across everything you do. But be under no illusions, this isn’t a job for the marketing department alone.