Is brand purpose really about the brand?
The problem with the world today (reminiscent of that least favoured uncle at the wedding) is the pervasive eagerness of every brand to assume the role of a saviour. This complex might indeed be fuelling a worldwide decline in brand reputation — an overarching "reputation recession," if you will.
This is not to undermine the brands who are playing a part in saving the world, or to say that brands can’t.... think Patagonia. However, a trend has emerged wherein it seems almost every brand aspires to be a force for world-saving or societal transformation. The consequence of this ‘pursuit’ within the realms of sustainability and progressive social advocacy has led to a dilution of the authentic essence of purpose. It is a sad state of affairs because every brand does need some form of ‘good’ purpose otherwise it becomes irrelevant.
To me, there are 3 key problems in the belief systems of marketeers and brand keepers around brand purpose:
The belief that brands can simply stick on a purpose like a badge
The belief that all brands have to save the world / our societies
Most importantly the belief that brand purpose is primarily about the brand when in reality, it extends far beyond that...
Let’s look at these 3 interrelated themes:
Purpose Ain’t No Badge
Creating, evolving and refining a brand purpose is complex. Brands can’t merely stick on a sustainability or D&I ribbon from a box of brand purposes medals. The world is awash with missteps by brands as they’ve tried to launch an initiative, create a communications marketing campaign, or start a revolution around a 2-dimensional story of social or environmental benefit. The Pepsi ad of a few years back with Kendall Jenner encouraging peace around a fractured world - one Pepsi can at a time - comes immediately to mind!
Brands can of course move into a socially responsible space (and many should) but they must do it with deep thought, outstanding creativity and authenticity for where they have come from - all the while thinking about new audiences and also their heartland. Here another recent furore comes to mind, the Bud Lite trauma of recent times.
It can be done. There are many examples of big socially responsible missions that are brilliant. Unilever’s Persil campaign ‘Dirt is Good’, that encourages kids getting outside and flourishing is a super powerful example of being true to the brand yet initiating a great movement.
To develop an idea like this isn’t easy. It requires more than talk. It requires understanding your audiences, where your brand can legitimately go and then creating a brilliant expression of the idea.
Not all brands need to save the world, indeed some can benefit from not trying
So many brands right now are telling us what to do and what to think about when it comes to the planet and society. They often come from a good place in that they truly want to positively contribute. But if they are not careful, they can seem exploitative and inauthentic. Why not accept that we don’t always need to have our brands save the world and our societies? We can positively contribute in many other ways than just being a saviour.
A really wonderful example of a brand not being a revolutionising saviour is Beavertown. It’s a striking brand, that feels contemporary and vibrant. Yet if you go to the website (https://beavertownbrewery.co.uk) any social cause or sustainability story is notable by its absence. All the brand seems to be about is creativity; connection and fun. Although not trying to save the world or change our societies for the better (overtly) these three things, to me at least, are incredibly noble causes.
Ultimately the role of brands can be many fold. They can nurture, connect, augment, enable, create, empower and protect their audiences to use just a few verbs. They don’t always have to save or revolutionise if they enrich and enhances people’s lives… and this brings me to the final and most important point.
There is a belief that brand purpose is primarily about the brand... IT'S NOT!
As aforementioned, brands can influence human beings in many ways. This is the crux. Brand purpose is not actually about the brand.
Brand purpose is about the affect it has on the Human beings.
Humans don’t exist to consume brands. Brands serve humans, enhancing and enriching their lives. As such any purpose should absolutely start with Human understanding. How does our audience want to live? How do they turn up the world? What values or deepest motivations govern their emotions, beliefs and behaviours ... what’s in their souls. Once having this deep understanding, brands can understand the role they play in people’s lives on deep human levels, what values they’re enabling and empowering and then where can they go authentically and relevantly. How will the evolution/creation/ refinement in purpose of the brand enrich and enhance lives further, honestly and authentically.
When brands forget to think about their audiences first (both legacy and new) we end with Bud Lite and Pepsi scenarios.
We need to start with the human audiences. By doing so:
We can find original ways for brands to talk about sustainability and societal challenges with authenticity, meaning and purpose for the audiences they serve
We will know when not to play in these domains as they don’t align with the audience and brand
There needs to be greater responsibility shown by brands otherwise the ‘reputation recession’ will become an Armageddon.
If you want help creating, evolving, refining your brand purpose and you think there might be something in putting the humans first we are here to help!
Paul Laver, Co-Founder of One Minute to Midnight