What’s the purpose of brand purpose?

Terry Smith – a bland name for such an outspoken uber-rich mega-fund manager – was not a happy man. Fundsmith Equity, the operation he runs from his sunny Mauritian idyll, had just seen its annual results compromised by its large and underperforming chunk of Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch brands behemoth is a complicated business, but in a letter to investors, Smith made a simple but telling remark: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot.”

The keyword here is purpose. Smith was highlighting the growing determination of businesses to talk about their brand purpose – all those reasons the brand exists beyond the basic one of making lots of money. It helps sum up what the brand stands for – sustainability, eco-cuddliness, equality, helping old ladies cross the road… Brand purpose allows the brand to connect to its consumers on a more emotional level. It can differentiate the brand from competitors – and become an integral part of the marketing story.

And today, it’s all the rage. There’s no doubt that when brands authentically communicate their purpose it can be hugely effective. But Smith suggests it can also go too far. “The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913,” Smith pointed out. “So, we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

What happens when marketing teams focus on brand purpose to the exclusion of the product itself and the fundamentals of the business? Smith seems to be suggesting it is important not to obsess about what a product stands for and lose sight of what it does. So Hellmann’s is all about making food taste delicious rather than being a touchy-feely brand with good intentions… like spending zillions on a Superbowl TV ad starring Amy Schumer in a bid to help us avoid food waste.

Bothism works – it’s not an either/or debate

Perhaps he is also implying that the marketing world has been overly seduced by brand purpose and needs to get back to basics. It’s time to adopt Bothism. In other words, it’s time to see both sides of the debate.

Brand purpose – and similarly brand activism – can work wonders if it is authentic and well implemented. Patagonia, for example, is a great brand that justifiably positions itself as a leader in sustainability. Nike’s controversial ‛Believe in Something’ campaign starring Colin Kaepernick delighted millions. It was risky but felt like a natural extension of its ‛Just Do It’ DNA.

And there’s no doubt consumers are becoming more environmentally and socially conscious. Half of global consumers, according to Edelman’s 2017 Earned Brand Study, revealed they are now belief-driven buyers. Two-thirds (67%) bought a brand for the first time because they agreed with its position on a controversial topic. 

Fostering a brand purpose can also work wonders for creating corporate team spirit. One classic story sums it up. In 1962 JFK visited NASA during the space race and spotted a janitor with a broom. Always a man of the people, the president asked him what he was up to. “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The scientists and astronauts did one thing; he did another. And he connected his purpose to theirs.

But pushing brand purpose can equally be an expensive dud, especially if the message does not ring true. Poor old Pepsi’s tie-up with Kendall Jenner proved to be a disaster. Many – including a buzzing social media – claimed Pepsi was leveraging protest movements such as BLM for profit. It was pulled. Instead of a boost in sales, there was a contrite statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. We missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout…”

Brand purpose – it’s a strategic choice

It is important to remember, on the other hand, that using brand purpose as part of a marketing push is not mandatory – a marketing must-do. It’s just another strategic choice. And that means, like all strategic decisions, it’s about doing what works for the brand.

First of all, a brand purpose can’t simply be a one-off marketing tactic. Consumers are quick to judge commercial cynicism. Secondly, a brand’s purpose backfires if it is employed to look good. It must be an authentic manifestation of what the brand stands for and what its target audience holds dear. Take Pepsi. It is unquestionably a refreshing drink. It is not a peace offering – as it seemed to be in the Jenner ad – during times of civil unrest. 

Back to Unilever, which has a long and impressive record of creating and nurturing brands. The Hellmann’s campaigns may not have cut the mustard as far as Smith was concerned, but the marketing around another of its brands, Dove, has been hugely beneficial. The much-admired Campaign for Real Beauty’ theme was based on the clear brand purpose of building self-confidence in women. Forget perfect models and beauty as skin deep; it relied, in sharp contrast, on revealing the beauty of real women. That they should feel comfortable in the skin they are in… a little like the best brands!

Is it time to redefine your brand purpose? We can help! 

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