Brand Purpose Might Not Be For You – Here’s Why
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Brand Purpose Might Not Be For You – Here’s Why

By Simon Callender
Creative Planning Director, Initials (UK)

Brand Purpose Might Not Be For You – Here’s Why

 Brand purpose - the hot ticket item du jour in the marketing sphere; but is this hype merited?


Today’s shoppers are certainly more committed to making positive purchase decisions than any previous generation. From in-house research, we discovered that almost half of those surveyed (46%) “only shop with brands that have a wider societal purpose” or are “always seeking ethical alternatives to existing brands”. 


Brands have made every effort to reflect these shifts in the consumer psyche. While early adopters such as Patagonia and Nike instigated the modern brand purpose banner, it would be difficult to name any business today which hasn’t trialed the notion, often misguidedly believing that it could be the marketing panacea.


But shoppers are getting fatigued. Shoppers, confronted with the omnipresence of trendy purpose-related marketing campaigns have started to ask themselves how deeply brands are invested in their professed causes. 


This wariness is backed up by striking statistics. Our research reveals a mere 9% of shoppers have faith in a brand whenever it avows a fundamental purpose beyond commerce. 


OK let’s pause, ignore the hype for a moment, and take a more analytical view at one step removed. In this way, we just might discover that brand purpose is not the elixir for brands that suffer from a lack of emotional connection with their consumers – and this is why.


What does ‘brand purpose’ actually mean?


To many, brand purpose simply equals “doing good”, which, just like sustainability before it, is becoming a one-size-fits-all expression that loosely bundles any humanitarian, philanthropic or charitable endeavor under one business objective heading. But, fundamentally, brand purpose is a pledge to pro-actively affect change in the wider world – how brands decide to come good on that promise is their choice. That call to arms must be of consequence and meaningful to a selected demographic and, crucially, has to be proven by action, not sloganeering. 


A genuine brand purpose cannot be another layering technique where messaging is pulled on over the extant brand architecture – it’s an action-oriented strategy that can only be properly executed and have proper credibility when it affects genuine change that people notice and appreciate. 


It is by action and impact that brand purpose metamorphosizes from a marketing deck to something which lives and breathes in the wider world and which can create a quantifiable and impactful effect. It’s the net result that shoppers need to see not the intent itself. If a brand is missing the resilience and wherewithal to bring about this shift then the brand purpose will remain an unmet, insincere ambition that will disappear into the background once marketing’s heat and light fade away, causing yet more of the shopper’s strong disappointment that our research highlights. 


Most shoppers surveyed concur that brand purpose is something that has to have a palpable effect on people and communities (not just a fad a brand thinks they can get behind with a thumbs up on social). Moreover, over half (55%) of shoppers say purchasing purpose brands “inspires me to work harder for that cause” and “encourages me to find out what I can do to help.” 


Nonetheless and concerningly, a third of consumers buying into a purpose brand says that it “makes me feel I’ve done my bit for that cause”, which spotlights the very reason why brands have to make good on their pledges if we wish to avert a net negative effect on that specific issue.


Finding a genuine purpose that brands can support in the wider world is not something every organization is able to or even should do. As we’re about to discover, there has to be room for license and room to drive impact. 


Why brand purpose isn’t all-purpose


The purpose is the quintessential embodiment of a brand’s promise to its own credo. Consequently, a brand purpose strategy should only mirror the existing belief system that underpins that brand. If there is no connection, then a brand purpose campaign will only further heighten this discrepancy. 


This incongruity goes some way to illustrate why a topic such as greenwashing has become established front and center in the shopper’s mindset. An Accenture study of more than 30,000 shoppers globally showed that over half (53%) of shoppers who are disenchanted with a brand’s words or deeds on societal issues vocalize it. Of even more concern, 47% now abandon a brand, frustrated, and 17% never return. 


With more information at their fingertips than ever before, shoppers have become especially skilled at spotting disingenuous attempts to retrofit “purpose” to a brand. This is particularly the case when a brand has failed to allocate any resources, be they financial or human, into living its purpose in the wider world. 


To make purpose real, brands need to have the beliefs and license to back it up. Appetite and perseverance are what’s needed to see these values through – both in the business and in the wider world. 


Here at Initials, we take our clients through a three-step exercise to evaluate whether brand purpose genuinely fits with a brand’s existing belief system or whether their challenge could be better solved with a different strategy. 


Step 1. Ambition – Firstly, we judge a brand’s real appetite is by interpreting business objectives vs brand perception. What is the time span under consideration? Is the brand locked into an issue for the long haul? Do the means match up with the objectives?


Step 2. Permission– Secondly, we need to assess whether a brand has the right to speak on a particular subject. What beliefs does the brand have or desires that it wants to act on? In what way do these values resonate with shoppers? Do these values stand out? Do shoppers care? Does a brand purpose program fit with the brand’s archetypes and personality?


Step 3. Resource – Lastly, brands have to take a cool hard look at their own pledge to a purpose – both from a resourcing and financing perspective. Do the human and financial resources at your disposal permit you to engage with this purpose in a significant way? Can you manage shopper expectations?


A long-term vision, not a short-term fix


Too often, brands see purpose as a solution for short-term business woes. This is where companies trip up. 


Brand purpose demands consistency because it launches a brand’s value system into the public domain. Unlike other activations, it needs to be strategic, not tactical.


Our research shows that 89% of those surveyed would spend more on a brand that has a genuine purpose. In fact, 1 in 3 consumers would pay a premium of 35% plus for a brand that displays an authentic purpose.


This direct relationship between brand purpose and increased spend might spell out why so many brands are so anxious to harness the power of purpose. But as we’ve seen, there’s more than a considerable amount of mistrust and suspicion in the marketplace, seeing as under 1 in 10 consumers trust a brand when it avows a deeper purpose.


So, how are we able to reconcile all this?


Well, any tactical attempt to hijack brand purpose will probably have a net negative outcome. Shoppers will see straight through this and interrogate a brand’s intentions and motives. 


The purpose is for the long haul. It’s an anchoring point by which a belief system can be applied to culture in a socially meaningful context over the course of decades – not a few financial quarters. 


When authenticity and impact are held above profit and perception, then the true brand purpose has a real chance to shine. 

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