What’s the purpose of brand purpose?

Adding purpose to your brand leads consumers to take away more than just the the product you are selling, writes Magnum Opus Partners' Pat Langton.

The first purpose of advertising is to grab the audience’s attention.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Because if your ads aren’t noticed, nothing else matters. Game over, right there.

Beyond that, though, great advertising comes from either an insight into your product/ brand or insight into your target market.

To my eyes, the most recent Gillette ad is a perfect example of the latter.

Gillette has long sought to ‘own’ masculinity – the essence of what it means to be a man – and they did just that in their newest spot that recently caused such a debate in the marketing industry and even the pages of newspapers.

But what we have to remember is that unlike those who toil away in the marketing industry, or who are paid to comment on popular culture, the consumer really does not care about the convoluted discussions.

They don’t pull apart advertising and deconstruct every word as we do.

They simply watch, maybe have a fleeting opinion, then they move onto the next thing. They may, or may not, have learned something which they will use in the future, consciously or subconsciously.

But a recent study showed that despite this very obvious truth, 75% of consumers worldwide expect brands to contribute to their well-being and quality of life. And this notion of what has been called “brand purpose” is especially important when marketing to millennials, 71% of whom say they prefer brands that drive social and environmental change.

Now: brand purpose can mean a lot of different things. You can have brand purpose directly from a product – a better mousetrap – but you can also stand for something bigger as a brand. What you seek to express a purpose about needs to mesh with who you really are. This is where it gets tricky, of course. Whatever the brand aligns itself with – social issues, environmental issues etc – it should also align closely with what you can own as a company.

Because for a generation Gillette has owned masculinity – the best a man can get, anyone? – their latest commercial is just fine. Whether you like The Best Men Can Be spot or not, it aligns with what they have always stood for – an image of what men should be.

Same goes with Nike and their ‘Dream Crazy’ commercial, this is perfectly aligned with everything Nike has always stood for.

Of course, the conversation gets much more complicated when you think about whether ‘brand purpose’ is about everything about you – it’s not just external, it’s internal, it’s what your company wants to stand for.

One criticism of the Gillette spot, for example, was that Gillette is owned by Procter and Gamble, which also makes skin lightening and whitening creams sold to millions in Asia and the Middle East, and that it’s inherently racist to tell dark women – it’s always women – that they are not OK looking the way they were born, and that P&G, therefore, perpetuate ridiculous and homogenous beauty standards to make money.

So we should always remember that when we stick our heads above the parapet they can get shot off, too. There have been numerous examples of companies seeking to appear environmentally aware only to be pulled up for not adhering to decent environmental standards in their real world behaviour, who are therefore accused of “greenwash”.

But we can’t ignore brand purpose just because it’s tricky. As a colleague said to me the other day, ‘your brand is actually what people say about you when you leave the room’. This sums up the whole brand purpose discussion perfectly. If you can add purpose to your brand that makes people discuss it positively when you leave the room, then you’re being smart.

Ultimately, you see, it’s about trust. If we trust someone, we’re almost certainly going to say or think good things about them. Increasingly we choose to buy products not for what they are but what they mean to us. If they align with our beliefs or values then we’ll be more likely to buy them.

No wonder brand purpose fascinates marketers.

Of course, brand purpose isn’t a ‘new’ thing, it’s always been there. We just have a new name for it now.

Nike is a perfect example; Nike sell shoes but they actually stand for something way bigger than that. They stand for effort.

Apple sells phones, watches, computers (and music!) but they have creativity as their bigger purpose.

Even brands like Toms Shoes and Thank You personal care are doing great things with a bigger purpose.

The point is to make sure your brand’s higher purpose is aligned with what you truly stand for as a brand.

So what do you stand for? Really stand for? More and more it looks like it’s worth spending the time to work that out. And then tell people.

Pat Langton is a partner and creative director at Magnum Opus Partners.


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