Myles George, Global NeedScope Director, says that not so long ago, it seemed quite straightforward for companies to align with a purpose. Corporate social responsibility meant giving back in some way. For many companies it was a way they could drive their reputation and give their employees the opportunity to contribute to a worthy cause. It was a win-win.

But in recent years, expectations of brands have changed. Even before the global pandemic, a shift was well underway in the world of brand marketing. Brands were emerging with social and environmental values built into them. Purpose was no longer a box to tick in corporate communications; instead, it entered the marketing mix, becoming more prominent in brand advertising.

Many brands use purpose to connect more deeply with consumers. Yet with the best of intentions, some brands miss the mark. For example, take the household and personal care brand Seventh Generation. Whilst this is not a recent start-up, they have been on a mission to create a more healthy, sustainable and fair world since their beginning. Their name originates from an Iroquois philosophy to think about the impact of what you are doing for the next seven generations ahead.

These emerging brands seemed to tap into something missing from many established brands: an authentic and ‘human’ dimension, with a higher purpose than simply making money. Their values and messaging resonated strongly with consumers. Not be outdone, many existing brands spotted this and started to acquire a purpose too.

Nike is one example, with their recent ‘Just Do It’ re-launch – championing the cause of minorities in sport or challenging female stereotypes. In many ways, the current pandemic seems to have cemented this shift. Kantar’s recent Global Business Compass study (4500 organisations the world over) shows 34% of businesses plan to play an increased role in supporting society. And the business benefits go beyond altruism; an analysis of the BrandZ database from 2006 to 2018 showed that brands with a strong purpose grew their value by 175%, more than double that of brands with weak purpose.

Beware the pitfalls of purpose

You might think brand purpose is now an obvious thing to do, but not so fast. Some other brand purpose examples have drawn equal attention for all the wrong reasons. Examples include overly simplistic portrayals of complex societal issues, or using charitable donations as some sort of game – we will donate to X every time X happens – which can sit really badly with customers.

Simply declaring that your brand is purposeful will not win you points with consumers. Once ‘purpose’ becomes part of the marketing mix, a new set of expectations arise. Fail to deliver on the purpose authentically, and people will likely perceive that you are co-opting a cause to help you promote and sell things for your brand. So how can brands manage this?

Getting purpose right

To avoid failure with purpose, brands should ask themselves three things:

  • Is the purpose genuine? Social media has brought transparency. Any disconnect between a brand’s intention and its behaviour will be publicly called out. This is fundamental. If you cannot genuinely act on your purpose, don’t do it.
  • Does the purpose make sense? For an established brand, jumping on an unrelated social or environmental cause is confusing. The purpose must make sense with what consumers are looking for in relation to brand choice. It has a to meet a need in the category. For example, Patagonia’s purpose makes good sense. They are all about outdoor gear, so it therefore seems natural for them to care for the environment. Their purpose and everything they do to support the environment adds value to the consumer’s brand choice.
  • Does the purpose ‘fit’ with the brand? Consumers may not always come out and say it, but they certainly know intuitively when a purpose just doesn’t feel right. Whether it is the cause, the tone or the execution, something about it just feels awkward.

This last point is often the most challenging, because it involves emotion – to get it right, you must understand how people truly feel about your brand and about the cause you are championing.

Back to basics

All too often brands default to stereotypical expressions of purpose. For example, purpose advertising often adopts a ‘caring’ tone, as seen recently in a lot of pandemic advertising. The advertising then starts to all look the same regardless of the brand – and people tune out. Executed this way, brand purpose does nothing for differentiation or clarity in the brand’s positioning.

And herein lies the challenge. There are a lot of ways a brand could talk about purpose. Take Ben & Jerry’s – they are famous for taking on environmental and social causes without losing their sense of humour. Their causes are serious, but they don’t overshadow the brand, which is all about light-hearted fun as appropriate for the ice-cream category. This elegant ‘fit’ between brand and purpose comes from knowing your brand at a deep level and being consistent in your execution. It is a classic brand strategy process.

One thing is clear. Good intentions aren’t enough with brand purpose. Effective and successful brand purpose is subject to robust brand strategy development. If you are not prepared to do that, just stick with corporate responsibility.