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Does a Brand Need a Purpose?

One of the marketing ‘buzz phrases’ to enter the industry lexicon in recent years ‘brand purpose’ has faced something of a backlash in 2018, which could either see it go down the road of ‘greenwash’, or transform into something new and improved that will continue to elevate a brand above the competition.

Brand purpose has been described as the single most compelling reason why a brand exists. Simon Sinek, one of the first commentators to coin the phrase in his book ‘Start With Why’ did a great job in defining brand purpose and its impact in the TED Talk he gave on the topic . Some marketers have even gone as far as to suggest that purpose is now the ‘fifth P’ in the marketing mix. Google gives a perfect illustration of effective brand purpose in their statement that the reason Google exists is to “organize the world’s data and make it useful and accessible.” Purpose doesn’t have to be based in CSR for it to be compelling, and the companies that communicate purpose well see positive impact all over their business, from sales and marketing, through to recruitment and retention.

More recently, we’ve started to see the backlash against purpose as some marketers and industry commentators liken it to the ‘greenwashing’ debate that began popping up a decade ago. As more and more companies attempted to position themselves or their products as environmentally friendly, consumers began to see through the spin and call out the companies who were talking the talk but not walking the walk. We are seeing this now happen with brand purpose and again, Google provides a good illustration. The company might have lofty ambitions when it comes to why it exists, but scandals around accusations of manipulating search results, tax avoidance and employees walking out in protest at the way the company has handled allegations of sexual harassment have started to hurt the brand.

As Alex Dimiziani, writing as the then Global Marketing Director of Airbnb in Marketing Week earlier this year suggested, when brand purpose is successful, the organization has it at the core of everything they do and evaluates all of its activities against it. But he also noted how too many companies are now seeking a purpose just for the sake of it and you start to see the cynicism creep in. Dimiziani concludes that, in his opinion, brand purpose has had its day and the industry will revert back to the more traditional positioning that us marketers all know and love.

Personally, I can see another path, one that I think companies such as Nike are already going down.

Regardless of where you stand on the subject matter and principal characters, there is no doubt that Nike’s recent Just Do It 30th Anniversary campaign was a bold move based on a perceived brand purpose. By featuring the controversial, former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, in its ad spots and artwork, the company was making a conscious decision to promote a brand purpose that it knew would alienate a huge chunk of its market. The tradeoff? Shedding low spending, old-fashioned, ageing customers, in exchange for younger, more socially aware market that will spend more on the brand over a longer period of time. So while a cynic like me can see the commercial motivation, despite a temporary dip in share price, the Nike brand has gone from strength to strength. Is it a long-term switch to a new brand purpose for the company? Maybe, and only time will tell, but there hasn’t been a follow up on the campaign using the same brand purpose since and it is unlikely that a sportswear company can credibly claim that its brand purpose is to champion social justice. This was just an incredibly smart marketing team taking advantage of a zeitgeist that matched their strategy, and it paid off. No one said your brand purpose had to be permanent as long as you are credible in the purpose you choose to champion.

Mike Golden, Brandigo’s China President, has his own take on brand purpose specific to brand strategy in China. In his view, brand purpose is all about value. He explains, “Chinese consumers, just like any other, will see right through any brand that is claiming a purpose that it doesn’t really live up to. Smart companies who want to give their brand purpose in China will be able to tap in to what it is their customers value about their offering, which may well be very different from their customers in other territories, and embed this in their entire in-market operation.”

For B2B companies, purpose can have a place in the marketing mix when done correctly. B2B marketers shouldn’t be coming up with a brand purpose based on team brainstorms or an aspiration of who they want to be. Ask your customers, your employees, your stakeholders how they see you and what they think you stand for. Take that feedback and craft it in a way that it becomes embedded not just in your brand but in your entire organization. If you walk the walk your purpose becomes clear, differentiation ensues, and your customers will buy into it too.

When brand purpose is successful, the organization has it at the core of everything they do and evaluates all of its activities against it.

- Alex Dimiziani

Global Marketing Director, Air

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