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Purpose Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Purpose is far from ‘lazy strategy’ – in fact, it demands more from strategists

By Nick O'Quinn, Strategy Director



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April 12, 2024 | 8 min read

Amid a whiff of backlash against the very idea of ‘purpose’ as a strategic principle for brands, Revolt’s Nick O’Quinn says we should take stock of what purpose-driven marketers are already achieving.

A tree with a vast understory of roots

Purpose: complicated, essential, and rewarding - but not lazy, says Revolt's Nick O’Quinn / Eilis Garvey via Unsplash

We’re not saving lives here’. Work in ad land long enough and this is a phrase every strategist is likely to hear. It’s supposed to make us feel better and give us a sense of perspective in the face of the challenges that come with developing and delivering campaigns.

But with purpose marketing becoming a more integral part of every strategist’s toolbox, while we still might not be literally ‘saving lives’, we’re increasingly having to help brands find meaningful and credible ways to make people’s lives better.

Love it or loathe it, purpose isn’t a fleeting fad. In the same way that digital transformation saw ‘digital’ move from the fringe to something fundamental, the expectation for brands to do better is only deepening. So, the future of purpose is something of an inevitability.

Strategy, on purpose

Joining an agency that works exclusively on purpose briefs has taught me a lot in the past two years about how to do purpose properly. At a talk called Does Purpose Have a Point? last year, Les Binet criticized purpose strategy for all too often being “lazy strategy”. For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because to do purpose properly requires strategy to do much more. It’s not about forgetting the fundamentals – strategy is here to help grow brands – but about using sharp thinking, ambition, and creativity for good.

With purpose, strategy has to cover more ground, take a bigger role, and work even harder.

Opportunity, in every brief

The thrill of being a strategist is so often about the opportunity to ‘shape culture’. To make things that real people talk about, laugh about, care about. Purpose strategy presents this opportunity like never before. Working on some of the world’s biggest and most loved consumer brands, I have the rare opportunity to direct their huge influence towards not only making things that people care about, but things that could make a real difference in their lives.

Curiosity, multiplied

Strategy is the perfect discipline for anyone who is eternally curious about the ways and whys of the world. Purpose strategy allows you to interrogate issues that are even more interesting: more urgent, more pointy, more complex, more polarized.

From visiting agronomists at regenerative potato farms, to unpicking the abuse gamers face playing Mario Kart, to getting into a spin with circularity – the strategist’s core skill set of listening and learning is given expanded horizons.

Difficulty, on a new level

Strategy is inherently difficult because it’s fundamentally about solving problems. It’s hard enough when you have one problem to solve, but with purpose you have double difficulty: a business problem and a societal problem, all in one brief.

Purpose done properly is about delivering positive impact in a way that also drives brand growth. To create a solution that is simple, authentic, credible, creative, distinctive and actually impactful is no easy task.

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Influence, across business

As strategists, we’re used to earning the ear of our marketing clients to guide them towards the right answer. With purpose, not only are the clients often the most senior decision-makers in the marketing community; the set of stakeholders is also much wider.

From sustainability teams and corporate affairs to product innovation and business transformation, we get the chance to guide entire organizations, not just brands, to arrive at sustainable performance.

Resilience, all the way

Making progress on a project in the face of changing briefs and multiple stakeholders often takes emotional and intellectual resilience. Nowhere is this truer than in purpose. Being at the frontier of marketing practice means there’s no blueprint to follow. It requires constant collective navigation to avoid going round in circles and getting stuck in dead ends. To borrow from everyone’s favorite political podcast duo, a heady combination of perseverance and resilience is required to give you the ‘persivilience’ to pierce a way through.

Satisfaction, guaranteed

When strategy is done well – when it creates clarity out of complexity, and elevates it with creativity – it can be incredibly satisfying. If doing good strategy is satisfying, doing strategy that does good is even more so. Not only because making progress in the face of double difficulty and endless ‘persivilience’ feels all the more monumental, but because knowing that your strategy may go on to positively impact the lives of many is even more motivating.

For me, the journey ahead looks even more exciting. Revolt has recently merged with Anthesis’ network of sustainability and ESG experts, enhancing our ability to advise brands on the right path towards purpose transformation. As businesses continue to realize their responsibility and opportunity to build a better world, the strategist’s role to help brands navigate it with flair and meaning has never been more important.

As for saving lives? Okay, that might still be a stretch, but my mood is so much brighter knowing I might be making some of them better.

Purpose Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

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