Last month The Drum published an opinion piece on the battle for brand purpose. It argued against the idea that brands should be using purpose as a marketing platform. The author implied brands should focus on marketing the benefits of their product or service to consumers, rather than tell superficial stories about liberal values - that brands should cut out the bullshit.
The interesting thing about the debate around brand purpose is that the arguments for and against are very similar. If you believe in the opportunity (and necessity) for businesses to play a more active and positive role in the world, then the last thing you want is the idea of ‘purpose’ being adopted at a purely superficial level. You want (and need) systemic change, action, substance – not bad advertising. If a business is to deliver work that has positive social or environmental impact, you also don’t want this undermined by the fact they don’t pay their taxes. We are all in agreement that nobody likes a hypocrite.
Part of the problem here lies in language. When we talk about ‘brand purpose’, it naturally feels like an all consuming idea, it is the reason why a brand exists; its role in the world. For most businesses and brands this is not to solve a problem in the world. The truth is that purpose needs to be re-framed. Not all businesses are built like The Body Shop or Patagonia. However, all businesses have the opportunity to do more and be better. So, if we look at purpose through that lens, the idea is about the unique positive contribution that a business can make to the world that complements a core product or service. It is a way of looking at its assets and capabilities differently to deliver substantive social or environmental impact.
And yes, this is different to CSR because this is about opportunity, not just responsibility. If a business wants to be responsible, then it must pay its taxes, treat its employees fairly, manage an ethical and equitable supply chain. These are the basics and yes it’s true, if you’re not getting that stuff right, please don’t try and tell us how much you care about the world. When companies have this in place, if you are running a good business and have established new and better ways of delivering positive impact as well as brilliant products and services, then why not talk about it? Why not try and involve more people in the change you are trying to create?
And before the marketing purists throw their desk-side copy of Byron Sharp at their screens, yes, absolutely, make sure your brand and marketing deliver against the drivers of value in the category. Make your product convenient, accessible. But don’t try and tell stories? Don’t try and connect with people in different ways (that aren’t exclusively designed to drive sales)? No way. This is how brands are built and communicated. The unique, positive contribution that a business makes to the world is becoming an increasingly important ingredient in contemporary brand building.
People today expect more from the brands in their lives, whether they buy from them or work for them. Our worlds are so much bigger and more complicated than ever - we are becoming genuinely concerned about who made our trainers, we are worried about climate change and the plastic from our takeaway flat white ending up in the oceans, we want social justice and equality. We are fed up that our government isn’t doing enough. We often feel powerless to do anything about it. But we think brands can - and should - play a role in these big world issues.
The implication of all this is that purpose isn’t just about why your brand exists, but about how your brand behaves. To be credible, it’s got to be integrated into how brands operate and be part of the customer experience. It’s not a quick or easy thing to do. It’s about action, not words. Business, not marketing. Substance, not image. And yes, that is still ‘purpose’.
Becky Willan is the co-founder and managing director of Given London.