Three uncomfortable truths about brand purpose

Benjamin HarrisonBrand purpose has been one of the buzz marketing phrases of 2014 with experts urging companies to stand for something more than profits. Here Benjamin Harrison argues very few brands can pull it off.

If only measured in articles, books, agencies and events espousing brand purpose – the idea driving brands through an understanding of ‘why we exist beyond making money’ or the ‘noble end’, then 2014 has been its peak year to date.

It’s also the year that Chipotle – the famously purpose-led fast food chain – reported explosive 19.8 per cent same-store sales growth in the US. By comparison, McDonald’s – a one-time stakeholder of the brand – posted a 3.3 per cent drop in the same period.

Steve Ells, Chipotle’s charismatic founder, once said “our performance is rooted in our long term vision to change the way people think about and eat fast food”.

It seems the proof is in the organic pinto. But here are three hard truths about purpose we can learn from the Chipotle story.

1. Purpose can be expressed, not invented (or: sorry, you don’t actually have a higher purpose)

Chipotle founder Steve Ells’ purpose epiphany happened when he discovered how pigs where raised in the US. What began as a personal mission become a compelling brand purpose around ‘cultivating a better world’.

It’s deeply troubling when consultants say they’ve ‘created’ a brand purpose for a client. A purpose can be expressed, articulated and activated, but can’t be conjured out of thin air or transplanted onto an orgnaisation.

The hard truth is that not every organisation has a higher purpose above making money. The mistaken belief that every business can be purpose-led has resulted in a swathe of generic and empty faux-purposes: ‘making the world better a smile at a time’, ‘inspiring humanity’ and ‘making a difference’.

That is not a purpose that will drive preference, galvanise your people or differentiate your business.

2. Purpose takes relentless proof (or: no, it not enough to put purpose at the top of your brand pyramid)

Chipotle is famous for its content: the Scarecrow and Back to the Start videos, and ‘Farmed and Dangerous’, an original comedy series highlighting problems in the food industry.

Easy, right? Just make brilliant brand content that expresses the big idea behind your purpose and the rest will follow. The hard truth is that it isn’t an easy approach. Purpose requires relentless proofing to keep consumers reminded of your big mission.

For Chipotle, that proof has includes its Cultivate festivals of food, ideas and music, the “Cultivating Thought” initiative where writers like Toni Morrison and Malcolm Gladwell write two-minute reads on packaging. Proof includes constant menu innovation in line with the brand promise – from organic beans to locally grown Californian lettuce.

3. Purpose is a premiumisation strategy (or: surprise surprise, it all comes back to profits at the end)

Chipotle has a problem: food costs are going up. This year food costs were 34.3 per cent of revenue, an increase of 70 basis points, driven by increased prices for beef, avocados and dairy.

The good news is that people are prepared to pay a premium for a strong purpose. And by people, we mean Millennials.

A couple of days ago, Steve Ells told USA today: “Millennials are turning away from traditional fast food in favour of better food. They are willing to pay more for something they recognise as better.”

If purpose can premiumise, the strategy works particularly well for businesses targeting Millennials: the demographic most likely to make values-based decisions about brands.

Purpose isn’t a silver bullet for every brand. It’s something inherent in a few organisations that are truly motivated to change the world for the better, and are actually doing it.

Benjamin Harrison is strategy director of RE.


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