Your approach to purpose branding is all wrong - the rise of movement strategy

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StrawberryFrog's CEO on how businesses can apply a similar mindset to those seen in social movements. / Andrew Vickers

“What are you going to do when your purpose strategy fails?” It is a simple question but coming from one of our most respected branding strategists, Chip Walker, head of strategy at StrawberryFrog, it felt like a powerful punch to the gut. Our client nodded in agreement and physically winced at the same time. We were doing due diligence on a corporate purpose. As if on cue, the client nervously laughed and then let us know in plain terms that she had failed to make the corporate purpose something more than an expensive PowerPoint presentation for her leadership board. She had failed to transform the company or habits that result in poor performance. This is the goal of the purpose strategy.

Purpose-mania has taken over the marketing world. Often defined as "a brand’s reason to exist beyond making money," purpose-branding got a huge boost a few years ago with books like Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ and Jim Stengel’s "Grow."

Initially, the marketing world’s obsession with ‘brand purpose’ had the potential to spark great improvements in both marketing and society. But it hasn’t necessarily turned out that way. It’s not that the quest for purpose has lost steam, far from it – more brands than ever are attempting to be purpose-led or purpose-driven brands and companies.

The issue is that purpose has lost meaning.

As experts in devising purpose branding over the past 20 years, Chip and I have worked relentlessly (and experienced great success) in building purpose strategies. Even when the motives for purpose-branding are genuine, the output can be vague, generic or so lofty and stratospheric as to be far removed from the customer's reality. How many brands have you seen whose purpose is along the lines of ‘making the world a better place,’ ‘inspiring people’ or ‘helping people live their best life?' When every competitor’s purpose is the same, it sort of defeats the, ah, mmm... purpose.

That said, none of these is actually the biggest problem with the current brand purpose-craze. The real issue is -- all talk, and no action. Too often a brand’s purpose lies dormant in a Powerpoint deck, and ends up never being activated out in the world. Companies spend millions developing purpose strategies. They develop these strategies with purpose experts or consulting companies that now offer purpose expertise. But then they hand over the purpose strategy in a neat PowerPoint, send the invoice and wish the company luck.

This idea of activating brand purpose is near and dear to us because it’s what we specialize in at StrawberryFrog. We launched StrawberryFrog in 1999 and pioneered an approach called 'movement marketing' that’s proven to help brands avoid the hazards that come with pursuing purpose that just sits there and does nothing.

Years ago, we made an acute realization. Purpose branding was nothing if you can’t activate it among employees or consumers.

The obvious fix was to come up with a framework that developed the activation of purpose branding . Our earliest revenue came from the launch of the smart car, which we ingrained with purpose to reinvent the urban environment, but ignited as a movement called “Reduce to the Max.” When Mercedes came calling, we wanted to test out the following hypothesis; that purpose was limited to marketers because it is too theoretical. Yet through the movement marketing lens – we invented this term and framework at StrawberryFrog back in the late 90s, it was a powerful force, capable of transforming employees and engaging consumers better that worked in a different way to most advertising campaigns. With the smart car, the movement strategy was validated.

I wanted to understand how people felt when they were part of a marketing movement, and set out to study 300 societal and business movements which ended in my best selling book “Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,” published by McGraw Hill.

What I learned by speaking with leaders of movements and company leaders at the head of movements, was that each movement was unique but each leader had an identical collection of mindsets and frameworks they used to transform purpose into a movement and then build a framework that enabled them to scale it. This growth mentality which ignited a brand and transformed a company were distilled into a movement strategy framework, which I dig into in my book.

From there, the challenge was how to introduce this new ethos into companies wishing to devise a purpose strategy. Few CEOs and CMOs are looking to join a movement; most want a purpose for their brand or company. Here are some rules for the road for the movement mindset:

  • What’s the enemy? Knowing what a brand is against can give focus and energy to what the brand is for. For example, nearly all banks have a purpose that dances around the idea of "helping move people’s financial lives forward." This can obviously lead to actions that are generic. But if we think harder as to what a bank brand’s nemesis is – financial insecurity, fear, or lack of understanding, etc. – clearer and more ownable actions bubble up.
  • Is your purpose expressed in a simple, motivating and big enough way? More often than not, companies develop overly complicated and generic brand purpose statements that trigger the B.S. meter. Is the idea being expressed in a pithy, memorable way that employees as well as consumers and prospects can remember emotionally?
  • Does your purpose have buy-in at the top? More than once, I’ve seen a brand’s high-minded purpose initiative be shut down by top company leadership as either not pragmatic enough or 'too risky'. This has happened often enough that I once seriously considered writing a blog post called 'How to be a socially conscious marker - when your company’s leadership doesn't really believe in anything'. Bottom-line, if your company’s top leadership isn’t 100% on board, a higher purpose is likely to just be window dressing for your brand.
  • Does it inspire on the inside? – I’ve often found that a good first step in articulating an actionable purpose is to ask the question," what would make an employee want to get up and go to work every day?" If an employee can readily put a brand purpose to work in his/her job, it shows in the customer experience – which is what actionable purpose is all about. That’s why purpose marketing nearly always works better when it works from the inside out.

I know, I know, purpose isn’t dead. On the contrary, it’s red hot. However purpose is dead unless you can effectively activate it. And plenty of marketing and brand managers have no idea how to activate a brand purpose. Neither do many ad agencies.

Purpose should inform a movement strategy. And the movement strategy should activate the purpose inside the company to motivate trust, passion, and creativity. Externally among consumers, movement should move people to move passions to move product. All using smart technology that mobilizes people, much like social movements do, in new and smarter ways.

Purpose today can underpin a movement Inside an organization that ignites passion, conviction, and moreover trust among employees while culture and habits are changed. And externally, with the right expertise you can use purpose to devise an effective movement outside - a marketing campaign that drives growth better, smarter than advertising or social media.

Scott Goodson is founder and CEO at Strawberryfrog.

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