Businesses don’t care for people, planet or community if they’re willing to sacrifice them

Is brand purpose as powerful as some commentators would have us believe? The Royals’ Dan Beaumont examines the point of brand purpose and why it’s important for some businesses, but not all.

Depending on who you talk to, brand purpose is the one thing that will make a difference to business in the modern world. It reminds us that it’s not all about money, is a rallying cry for a workforce who believe their role is bigger than just ‘working for the man’, a genuine questioning of the mistakes of the past and a promise to do better. Or, it’s a nonsense-driven buzzword used by brands in a desperate attempt to make a younger audience like them.

The truth is probably a bit of all of those things.

When it’s done well, a brand identifies a purpose that relates to its core product or service that not only puts it at an advantage commercially, but also benefits a broader community who may – or may not – be consumers of the brand.

Marketers have long debated the value of brand purpose, but now CEOs are getting in on the act, too, and we can safely say brand purpose is in the zeitgeist. There are good reasons for that. For starters, as it becomes harder to differentiate products and services with key attributes alone, brand purpose can play a role in giving consumers another reason to buy – in some cases, the only reason to buy.

On another level, we live in a time where there’s a crisis of trust. Some consumers no longer know whom to trust (especially politicians), so companies are stepping in to fill the vacuum.

The problem, as Mark Ritson would tell you, is that brands can be caught out paying lip service to purpose while their behaviour defies it. Brand purpose can sacrifice profit, he claims. Starbucks, for example, purports to be focused on ‘nurturing’ communities, but engages in next-level tax minimisation, which does little to nurture anything other than its own profit margin.

Brand purpose isn’t for everyone

There are also many brands where purpose might struggle to make a difference, particularly for those that provide a specific utility and need to promote that. It’s strategically, and creatively, challenging to design believable purpose-driven communications for a packet of chips, a low-carb beer, a faster processor, a new model of SUV, a ride-sharing service, a 55” 4K UHD LED TV or a bar of chocolate – see Cadbury’s recent Diversity Bar fail.

What did Cadbury think it would achieve with Diversity Bar? The scorn on social media was substantial. “Where were you when Cadbury ended racism?” one person tweeted. Surely this attempt at aligning chocolate with skin colour isn’t good for sales? Or, did they sell out of the bar? Does short-term commercial upside trump longer-term brand dissonance? Was this purpose-driven marketing gone wrong, or just a bad idea? Only Cadbury knows the full story.

Marketers need to sell their products in the most interesting way possible (obviously) but shouldn’t stray too far from core value propositions. It’s a risky strategy to try and cozy up with people’s values, especially when it’s disingenuous. Insert Pepsi’s ad with Kendall Jenner here (no link because we don’t need to see it again).

Brand purpose is incredibly useful when it acts as an ‘organising thought’ for a business. However, it should still come from a truth about the organisation, what it believes and what it values. Its power is more potent then.

The purpose of purpose

It’s not far-fetched to suggest we are entering a new reconciliation of the role of brand purpose, culminating in the battle between short-term and long-term objectives. I’d argue there’s little room for purpose in a marketing world obsessed with always-on, programmatic, performance-based media.

And this is a problem. Business is demanding assurances and the current operating system is forcing us to be practical, scientific and analytical to drive growth (economics drives everything, after all). But is this right? Is this the only way?

It’s hard to argue with, because we think the numbers don’t lie. We’re told that if we spend a certain amount, our traffic will be X and our CPA will be $Y. It’s reliable, quantifiable and defendable. But there’s no multiplier effect. There’s no art in this model. No creative magic.

Brand purpose work is the secret sauce. When done well, it’s the emotional content a brand needs to engage an audience in a world that’s full of communications landfill. It’s the part of the marketing mix that can build sustainable growth in the long term, even when the campaign is no longer in market. Brand (purpose) work can fuel organic search (that generates value over time) and can help the immediate acquisition campaign by lowering the CPA. Much more effective than buying more impressions (I’m not a media strategist, so I’m happy to be proven wrong).

I strongly believe in the power of brand purpose. It creates a more interesting and engaging platform for organisations to connect with consumers.

But it must be relevant to the category, product or service in question – that’s the strategic challenge. We can’t pretend to believe the business cares for people, the planet or the local community if we’re willing to sacrifice them as soon as the mood, traffic, clicks, sales or profits dip. So let’s be honest about that from the start.

Dan Beaumont is managing partner at The Royals


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