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Can we get some perspective on brand purpose?

By Andy Cridland

January 10, 2020 | 6 min read

In the movie Anchorman, there is a scene in which news teams from different channels gather in an abandoned backstreet for an almighty scrap. Each team appears one by one and issues a ridiculous threat calling the others out.


Can we get some perspective on brand purpose?

It’s a classic piece of cinematic comedy. But the sad thing is, for us folks in the marketing and advertising world, the joke could quite easily be on us. Particularly on the subject of brand purpose. I know of no other business practice that divides opinion as much as it does.

I can picture the industry’s own Anchorman-style scene now: Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass team circle Jim Stengel and his crew, “brand purpose? Brand ideals? It’s all bollocks. Brands grow through distinctiveness, mental and physical availability.”

Bob Hoffman steps in, “agreed. There’s no bullshit like brand bullshit. Nobody wants a “relationship” with a brand”. Shotton piles in, “we should reject brand purpose. The data doesn’t stack up.”

Hayman and Giles from Seven Hills arrive, “it’s about mission and belief.” David Hieatt joins in, “yep! Brands with purpose do better and matter more.” James Watt from Brewdog, “lead with the crusade, not the product”. Mark Earls, “successful brands are driven by a belief and a sense of purpose”. Simon Sinek, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Then silence, and the camera pans out to reveal this ridiculous Mexican stand-off. A melee of marketing bods staring and snarling at each other. You have to laugh or you’d cry.

The ridiculous thing is that no one is wrong. Quite feasibly all of the comments referenced above could be applicable and appropriate to a great many different brands. And that’s the point. It shouldn’t be about trying to convince people that purpose is bollocks or not. What’s right for one brand, might not necessarily be right for another. There is no silver bullet in all this and mo guaranteed recipe for success. All thinking can be relevant and useful in the pursuit of a strategic plan or solution.

The problem is, as an industry we seem to be obsessed with calling BS on each other rather than helping connect the dots to the different schools-of-thought. And so, we have to navigate our way through a swamp of clinical, dogmatic narratives in which different perspectives are presented as the “only answer”. It is this that is confusing the shit out of people. Take a step back and I believe that it’s not hard to see that there is some good sense and merit being shouted from all corners of the industry.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer some perspective. A set of principles to provide some balance on the subject of brand-purpose:

1. Not all purpose narratives are the same. There are different types. Some rooted in a new perspective about a category (Method), some rooted in activism (Patagonia), some in a challenger narrative (Brew Dog) and some rooted in a passion for a subject (Weber). There are many more.

2. Purpose probably shouldn’t be about saving the world (eh Pepsi?). Some kind of societal-mission can work – but be careful. Further up the benefits ladder is good. But some take it way too far.

3. Not all brands even need a purpose. It is clear to see that many brands exist and thrive with a distinctive market positioning strategy. Think Marmite. Great brand. No purpose.

4. Positioning is not the same as purpose. Brand Purpose should run deep. The entire company has to be built around it. You can’t reverse into it, and it’s not an emotional ad-campaign. Brand strategy is a business strategy.

5. Some people don’t give a shit about your purpose and never will. For some people, it is purely distinctiveness, mental and physical availability. This does not mean that Ehrenberg Bass has solved all our problems. There are many people who want more from a brand.

6. Purpose doesn’t have to be unique. The misconception is that it must be. We are told ‘differentiate or die’ – I don’t believe that’s the case when it comes to purpose. The question should be; how can we own it? And if it’s not obviously different, pull on the distinctive lever a bit harder.

7. Purpose takes time and commitment.

8. Be mindful of authenticity. You can’t bullshit purpose. You will eventually get found out, and it will come back to bite you.

So there you have it, eight principles that aim to provide some perspective on brand purpose. They take steer and guidance from lots of different schools of thought. You may agree with some and disagree with others. But, that’s fine. It’s not about convincing you that the world is all one way. It’s about trying to see the full- picture, seeing all the options and then making the best decision based on having considered all of them.

Andy Cridland is the director of global brand strategy and innovation at Blackrock. piece is one of a series generated as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma course for 2019. The course was supported by The Drum's editorial team to help develop the writing skills of the students taking part to help them learn to pitch and write effectively for an audience of their peers.


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