Why Does Brand Purpose Matter, and Where Does It Start?

May 4, 2017 Jonathan Crowl

What is brand purpose?

In a meeting with your company’s executive team, everyone is talking about the new green initiative your competitor is launching. Their advertisements are plastered with images of solar farm investments, support for sustainable agriculture, and energy conservation strategies. The company even has a microsite dedicated to these efforts.

Your CEO loves it. He sees the positive reactions and the brand lift generated by this positive content, and he wants in on the action. He turns to you, his chief marketing officer. “We need to come up with a brand purpose. Can your team do that?”

Your heart drops. You want to say yes, but you worry this desire is coming from the wrong place. You’ve seen brands make half-hearted attempts to leverage social issues and worthy causes for their own corporate gain, and you’ve seen what happens when it goes wrong: a wave of backlash, a barrage of criticism against its executive leaders, and a plunge in the brand’s reputation among consumers.

Along with your trepidation, you have questions. Is brand purpose merely a marketing tool, or is it a larger business culture? You’re skeptical enough to see an ad about sustainable farming and know that there’s a brand behind it with the ultimate goal of raising revenues. But does that invalidate the positive impact it makes on society? If not, then isn’t your purpose much bigger than the marketing implications?

What is brand purpose?

Image attribution: Gustavo Quepon

Where Brand Purpose Begins

This is a lot to sort through when you’ve been asked a point-blank question from your boss. Let’s break it down.

First of all, where does your brand’s purpose originate?

While it’s true that this purpose has legitimate implications for marketing and content strategy, it can’t be contrived. Consumers are sensitive to brands faking altruism for the sake of selling more microwaves; even if it works out in the short-term, it’s likely to do lasting damage.

For your brand’s purpose to be authentic, it has to be woven together with your brand’s mission. This makes it the territory of the CEO. And purpose is only part of the equation: You also have to demonstrate how you’re being purposeful. Any company can care about reducing ocean pollution, but which ones are reducing their use of plastics and creating biodegradable products?

As AdWeek notes, a great example of this purpose-led approach comes from Airbnb. The company originated as a low-cost alternative to hotels, a hybrid of renting rooms and couch-surfing. Then, in 2014, it changed its branding to align with its larger purpose, which was making people feel like they could “belong anywhere.” The brand’s mission became less about lodging and more about building an inclusive experience rooted in a sense of global community.

What is brand purpose?

Image attribution: Joshua Earle

This was a big shift for the company, and it wasn’t cooked up in a marketing brainstorm session. AdWeek pointed out that “countless conversations, focus groups, and soul-searching sessions” were required to help the brand arrive at its new sense of purpose. This shift was driven at the executive level, which made it possible for this purpose to filter down into every arm of the company, including marketing.

The Importance of Shared Value

Corporations may not be inherently beneficent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do good. Increased globalization, along with raised consumer awareness of social issues and the need for greater advocacy, is pushing brands to consider the benefits of a concept known as “creating shared value.” This theory, developed by Michael Porter of Harvard Business School and venture capitalist Mark Kramer, argues that a company’s competitiveness, as well as the health of the communities with which it interacts, are not separate from one another—instead, they’re mutually dependent.

Shared value combines a brand’s purpose with its ability to make an impact in its communities. According to the Harvard Business Review, this can take several forms. One is the reconception of products and markets: Brands should consider how both the products created and markets served can positively impact communities.

As the Telegraph points out, shoemaker Adidas accomplished this years ago by creating a low-cost shoe for poor residents of Bangladesh. This footwear only costs one dollar per pair, but that low price point is critical for consumers in the developing world to be able to afford them. Bangladeshi consumers have access to affordable, quality foot protection, and Adidas can leverage their existing manufacturing and distribution system to still turn a small profit on the shoes, providing a humanitarian service while creating value for the company.

Porter and Kramer argue that organizations should also redefine productivity in terms of how their operations consume natural resources, including human capital. The entire value chain should take into account the social and environmental costs of their activities alongside the financial bottom line.

The third pillar of creating shared value is operating in collaboration with the community. As HBR notes, Nestle collaborated with small coffee bean farmers to redesign its process of acquiring its beans—a move that also improved the living and working conditions of those small farmers. Greater support from Nestle also increased the productivity and quality of those crops yields, resulting in better ingredients and a better product (even as it served international farming communities).

Brand Purpose and Competitive Advantage

Cultivating this social value proposition creates a competitive advantage. Only at this point does marketing play a role in serving that purpose by telling the story of the value proposition through a dedicated content strategy, raising awareness for the new purpose your organization has embraced. Re-investing profits into your community is great, but it only makes business sense if you can use that investment to build support among your customers and strengthen those relationships.

That’s the harsh reality of capitalism, and it’s precisely why creating shared value is a strategy on the rise. But if executives want to pass on this work to sales and marketing teams, don’t be afraid to offer some gentle pushback. A brand’s purpose may have value to marketers, but it can’t be purely a marketing initiative. If it is, it basically functions as a hollow promise, because the brand’s executive actions and decision-making won’t align with their mission.

Consumers aren’t dumb. They will see through that facade, and it will do your brand more harm than good. If you want to build a better purpose for your brand, it all starts with your CEO.

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Featured image attribution: Seth Doyle Photography

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