• Jake

[Brand] Purpose without bullshit: time to refocus

Brand Purpose is Marmite

Brand Purpose has become something of a controversial poster child over the last few years. Loved by some. Hated by others.

For those companies seeking to develop their Brand Purpose there’s plenty of guiding principles to support this. Such as Accenture saying:

  1. Be human and establish emotional connections: How can we make lives better?

  2. Be clear and authentic: How can we live these values and beliefs?

  3. Be creative: How can companies rethink their engagement models to best deliver this?

However, broad guiding principles by themselves don’t clearly establish the role of Brand Purpose or how it can rightly be applied fit-for-purpose. To use an airline analogy, while the on-board navigation equipment guides a plane to the airport, the pilot still needs the support of air traffic control to land it safely on the runway.

In the interests of self-disclosure, I’ve worked with companies big and small over recent years to help establish their [Brand] Purpose. Nevertheless, being pragmatic by nature, I’m not a blind advocate to the merits of this. So, for what it’s worth, here is my air traffic control take on this…

Brand Purpose is a misnomer

As a lens, the Brand Purpose label is misleading. Why?

‘Brand’ suggests marketing. Yet the true scope is much broader, given the intended application at an enterprise level.

The dictionary definition of ‘purpose’ is simple: ‘the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists’. Or to put this within context – ‘the reason a business exists beyond making money’.

Hence at an enterprise level it would be truer to talk about Core Purpose rather than Brand Purpose. Brand Purpose is key to good brand management. Core Purpose is key to good business management. The difference lies within the altitude of objective and scope.

Take a company like Diageo who has a plethora of brands, including Guinness. Together these coalesce around a Core Purpose of ‘Celebrating life, everyday, everywhere’. This encompasses and aligns how the company operates as a whole, not just the marketing function. It acts like a beacon, including innovation.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Aside from the misleading label, another problem lies with the actual application of ‘Purpose’. Put 10 marketing people in a room together and you’ll come up with at least 11 different variations. Invariably top of this pile is the ill-conceived notion that a Core Purpose is ultimately about having some societal focused higher purpose based around ‘saving the world/making life better’.

If you climb the benefit ladder high enough into the ether, everything ends up at something big and worthy. But climbing too far will lead to nothing more than a veneer of laddered up nonsense. Or at best the risk of losing all relevance with the category sector and customers. As Simon Sinek famously said: ‘People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it’. But here’s the thing: the ‘why’ needs to connect with the ‘what’ to have any meaningful resonance.

The problem is few companies can credibly make such big and worthy claims through their end-product or service offering. Perhaps, helping in some way through how they operate. Perhaps, by giving back and donating profit to good causes. The oft-quoted example being Patagonia. Their business approach and philosophy are commendable in limiting ecological impact and unnecessary harm with the goods they make. But even so, are they really as they claim ‘in business to save our home planet’? More responsible yes. And a better choice over other more ordinary or less scrupulous manufacturers. But saving the planet?

In commerce the ultimate purpose is profit

Never one for sitting on the fence Mark Ritson says, ‘a true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it’. To help support this, he’s called out insincere companies who selectively forsake their purpose for profit:

  • Starbucks rather contradictory ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit’ whilst side-stepping societal tax responsibilities.

  • Gillette who call for female respect and equality by spotlighting toxic male behaviour – whilst poorly treating woman by charging 25% more for razor blades via a hidden ‘pink tax’.

He’s quite right to do so. Companies must match their ‘say’ with their ‘do’.

Ritson also highlights the aforementioned Patagonia as a sincere company who forsakes (some) profit for their purpose.

These examples, from both sides of the coin, seek to illustrate the importance of putting purpose before profit. However, this is where I politely disagree. It’s true in part, but not carte blanche.

Let’s not beat about the bush. All commercially minded organisations are primarily concerned with making money. Without it, they would have no business. Even Patagonia.

Coming back to the generally agreed definition of Purpose: ’the reason a business exists beyond making money’. Beyond making money doesn’t necessitate sacrificing this. They can co-exist, and be market focused with an ethos and sincerity that resonates strongly with its intended customers.

Take BMW for example. Profit is clearly important. But it’s not all about flogging as many cars as possible. For them their purpose is focused around the philosophy of ‘driving excellence’. This is supported by technology, control and style across everything they do from their product build to showroom design to advertising approach.

So, what makes for a ‘good’ Core Purpose?

Core Purpose. What it is – and isn’t.

Aligned to the readily accessible guiding principles previously mentioned, here’s some pointers from my own experience to bear in mind.

1. Company first, public second

  • Purpose is born internal to a company to inspire, guide and focus them on doing the right things in the right way.

  • While it could become public facing (it doesn’t have to be) it can never start with or just be about an end line.

  • It is born out of a business truth. The driving force behind a company. It is not a box ticking exercise. It’s about the total experience from the inside out.

2. Starting out as a company without an upfront Core

Purpose isn’t a barrier.

  • Some companies start life as purpose-driven like Patagonia or Body Shop.

  • Others start life from a purely commercial perspective. Some of those companies put the maximising of profit before everything else. It is their sole goal and purpose. Therefore, defining a greater purpose isn’t for them.

  • But this doesn’t damn them all. For some it can be about awakening or reawakening the underlying business motivations and reason to exist. Dove wasn’t always about ‘female empowerment’. But through it’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ it established a purpose it has since fully committed to. Companies with a purpose engender customer attention because, price point aside, a meaningful, emotional connection is an important facet of appreciated value.

3. Core Purpose doesn’t have to deliver from day 1.

  • But you must believe it can get there in time. So, it still needs to feel credible and be faithfully committed to.

  • This thought is nicely developed in the book ‘It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for’.

  • In essence: Core Purpose is the motivational ethos that drives a company forward. It embodies the ideal. It is there to remind people connected with the business about its aims and goals beyond making money. This purpose should give a sense of long-term meaning and future aspiration. And not be a confessional for initial shortcomings.

4. Don’t mix up CSR with Core Purpose.

  • The ‘goodness movement’ has hijacked the essence of Core Purpose. There’s a mass rush to create big, lofty purposes bolted to social good. However, not all businesses can make the world a better place or save humanity. And it’s important not to confuse CSR with Core Purpose. They aren’t necessarily one and the same. CSR doesn’t always tie back to a company’s core business focus offering.

  • However, it’s still OK to be lofty and aim high. But only where credible to the company and relevant to the consumers and categories they serve to make it work. Not every business can be world changing.

  • But Core Purpose can also inspire when market focused rather than society focused. Aligned around a business philosophy and approach this doesn’t take away from the importance of why a business was started with the impact it intends to make. (See earlier BMW example).

5. Purpose is the foundation to Mission, Vision and


  • Core Purpose is the ‘why’ pointing everyone along the same directional path. It embodies the motivation behind a company’s existence. While this is enduring, the application of this will evolve depending upon internal and external factors.

  • Purpose isn’t Mission. Mission is the ‘how’ - what needs to happen to fulfil the purpose goal through its products/service offering and related business strategies.

  • Purpose isn’t Vision. Vision is ‘what’ a company hopes to achieve in working towards fulfilling its Purpose.

  • Purpose isn’t Positioning, despite talk to the contrary. Purpose begins life as an internal ideology; it’s enduring and not primarily focused on trying to differentiate. Positioning on the other hand is relatively ephemeral and completely public facing to gain favourable attention and impact. This is achieved through adapting to external factors such as consumer, competitor and category changes.

In conclusion

The importance of generating revenue and profit cannot be denied. It is essential to commercial success. However, companies with a sense of purpose and competitive mindset that goes beyond money can help direct corporate culture, stakeholder engagement and the models of business leadership.

It isn’t for all companies. But if you decide it’s right for yours, then you need to be serious about getting it fit-for-purpose to best serve your customers and business. I hope this article offers some support.

#businessperformance #Brandtrust #Brandauthenticity #brandpurpose

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