Do you need a Brand Purpose?

I don’t think that there is a more contentious element in the wonderfully weird world of branding right now than the notion of “Brand Purpose”.

If you can be arsed going onto the ghetto, which is Brand Strategy Twitter, you’ll get people sharing their many, contradictory points of view in 280 characters. So I thought it’d be interesting to look at brand purpose, where it comes from, the upside and downsides. I’m conflicted on this entire sphere of branding. So this is more an exploratory post than some well-reasoned doctrine. Hold on tight. 

Looking at a check Google Trends report, you can see that it’s been increasing since 2004 but really taking a spurt since 2015. 

It’s fun, but probably pointless, to try and understand why the interest in brand purpose seems to have accelerated since 2015. The obvious takeaway is that it’s the rise of a certain type of authoritarian leadership that crept into society, with the rise of Brexit, Trump coming into the ascendency. 

Since 2015, we’ve seen elements of the culture rise that we probably thought that our liberal, neoconservative world had, if not banished, at least pushed to the very fringes of society. Instead, all we’ve seen is that it doesn’t take long to scrape away at the veneer of respectability for people to become vile. 

As we’ve lost the respect of the political class, as we’ve become disillusioned with the way organised religion have faced their own challenges, we seem to be looking at brands as a guiding light for giving us purpose in our own lives.

The response to this change is brands are trying to be seen as a force for good rather than another brick in a corporate monoculture. Brands feel that they must stand for something than seem to stand for nothing. A thousand surveys start to cry that millennials want brands to have strong social, ethical values. After reading a business magazine on the latest trends on their transatlantic business class flights, the C Suite sees that any successful 21st-century business must be a purpose-driven business.

What I’ve put forward is straight out conjecture. I get it. I don’t know if brands are where we should be looking for our moral salvation. It can seem more than a little mercenary, opportunistic. Saving the planet to sell more cream cheese. 

Brands do feel as if they are in a difficult position. As a cream cheese manufacturer, what can you add to the big debates in this moment? On the one hand, it feels trite if you make your position clear. On the other, it can be seen that you’re saying something by saying nothing. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk. 

It’s not as easy to incorporate the notion of brand purpose into your brand structure as you’d think. When we’ve talked to clients around getting a purpose, the usual names like Ben and Jerry’s, Allbirds, Tom’s are being bandied about. The critical element about these brands is that they started with the purpose at the start of their business. It was baked into the decision process of the company, embedded into their values that guided every different decision from day one.

Trying to accommodate a brand purpose into your existing brand structure can be challenging. Is your purpose more important than your vision? What comes first? How do they work together? Sometimes the brand purpose statement seems to be more aspirational than the vision for the company. You believe that your brand is the guiding light for your day-to-day decisions. In that case, adding in the extra layer without understanding the interactions with the other areas of your brand strategy leads to confusion. 

I’d also suggest that any purpose you embark on involves some sense of sacrifice for the business. Usually, this consists in making less money, possibly fewer profits. 

Without this sacrifice, however it manifests itself, it seems like your brand purpose is just lip service. And this can be detrimental to both your staff and your brand. You need to show how your purpose is impacting, not just shout that you have one. 

We’ve talked before about branding being as influenced by fashion as much as it should be underpinned by a rigorous, tested process. Hopefully. It seems to have fallen out of favour, but the R in CSR seems to be a better direction than the P in brand purpose. 

I think I can explain why by showing you 2 questions. 

1.     What is your company’s purpose?

2.     What is your company’s responsibility?
 

I think the difference between these two questions is subtle but profound. I think that purpose is tied to your product or service. At Good, I could argue that our purpose, why we’re founded, is to show how branding can positively impact a business. That is our purpose. 

Our responsibility is very different and deals with another subset of questions that is better framed. What is our responsibility to our people, to our clients? What is our responsibility to the planet? What is our responsibility to the common good, to society? From Black Lives Matter to the payment of taxes? I don’t see it as a purpose but as a responsibility. 

Wherever possible, I think trying to humanise brands makes a stronger brand. As a pretty basic human, I have to be honest and say that I don’t feel I have a purpose. Or a Purpose. I know some people do, and it usually holds an inspiring, sometimes heart-breaking, story behind it. But I don’t.

Responsibilities though? Oh, fuck aye. I have them. I have four kids that I need to look out for. I have a home. I have a partner to support as she supports me. My responsibilities define me and define my actions. Every decision I make is made through the lens of these responsibilities. I have to compromise and prioritise. They can be both overwhelming and reassuring. 

I think “responsibility” has a stronger weight than purpose. Purpose has too many esoteric connotations. Responsibility is grounded, actionable and, dare I say, more easily understood.

Lastly, I think no matter your preference, purpose or responsibility, viewing it as primarily an external function, a wee bit of PR, is a mistake. This conversation has to start internally first and then flow outwards.

As I said at the start, this isn’t a well-reasoned thesis. My feeling around the reaction on how brands fit in into the times we live in is this:

Fuck your brand purpose. Be purposeful in your responsibilities.