What’s the point?! The importance of brand purpose

For all of the interest in brand purpose, there is an equal amount of misconception. David Rowlands, editor, spoke with Jill Pringle, to delve into just why it’s so important, why businesses should start putting purpose at the heart of all they do, and more. Jill Pringle is a brand marketing consultant, the founder of Brand Symphony Marketing, and the author of The Brand Symphony.

To be blunt, what is brand purpose and why is it so important?

The definition of purpose is ‘the reason why something is done or exists’. So, your brand purpose is why your business exists. I can’t think of anything more important!

For us as marketers, the why is at the core of how we position businesses, differentiate ourselves and identify relevant audiences. It’s also more motivating and engaging for customers and employees than expecting them to have a desire to simply help us make money.

To be equally blunt, I think the issue with ‘brand purpose’ is that we spend so much time debating what it is, rather than focusing on making sure that it’s actually real and what drives us – not just an academic messaging exercise – and that our actions match what we say.

If an organisation doesn’t currently have a brand purpose, how can they build one? Is it a case of ‘too little, too late’, or can brand purpose be cultivated at any point in an organisation’s existence?

I suspect that all businesses have a purpose – a reason for existing – beyond their financial objectives. They just might not have articulated it clearly. Or, over time, they’ve lost focus on it. I often work with businesses who, as start-ups, had a clear purpose, but it’s become diluted as they’ve grown – perhaps as the market has changed, or as the original founders have moved on.

What’s implied in your question – and actually where a lot of the negativity towards brand purpose comes from – is that it implies the ‘why’ has to be something huge like save the planet or reduce world hunger. For most businesses, this simply isn’t real.

I think the word cultivated is important here. Lack of cultivation over time and across the business is common. So, a brand states a purpose, but the dots behind it – the day-to-day that customers and employees experience – bear no resemblance to it. 

Ask yourself, why does this business really exist, why was it founded? Don’t just ask what people need from you, but why that is. For your clients, you’re probably part of solving a bigger problem, or enabling something meaningful. Reading Start With Why by Simon Sinek would be a good first step.

Brand purpose is sometimes criticised for being ‘pink and fluffy’, or even ‘irrelevant’. What’s the business case for brand purpose?

It’s seen as ‘pink and fluffy’ as the stated brand purpose is often disconnected from the commercial goals. Someone in finance sets some commercial goals and then marketing try and shoehorn a purpose around that. Frankly, I’ve been there.

This is why Simon Sinek was such a revelation, because he was clear that if you start with your ‘why’ and build your commercial model around that, then that disconnect won’t exist.  

The business case for brand purpose is that human beings can connect with it emotionally. Employees are more likely to find meaning in their work so deliver more value and stay longer. The same engagement goes for customers.

Is brand purpose necessary for every organisation, and should some organisations steer clear of it altogether? Why?

I don’t think any brand should exist without a purpose, I mean why would you?

I think purpose is something that B2B brands should invest more time in clarifying – because so many B2B businesses are people-based services – and so motivating people and giving them common goals is vital to success. People buy from people, right?

What organisations should steer clear of is a purpose which is about environmental sustainability if that is counter to what they do. I remember this debate back in the 90s within a print business. Taking steps to reduce the environmental footprint of that printing – both reducing the print by moving online and also carbon offsetting and being more recyclable – were all responsible strategies. But to have a brand purpose about being green would have been preposterous!

Some organisations’ brand purpose can be perceived as ‘fake’ or ‘deceptive’, and actually have the opposite effect to that intended! What pitfalls do these organisations fall into, and how can other marketers avoid making the same mistakes?

Advice in two words: Be honest.

If you don’t cure world hunger don’t pretend you do, because people really aren’t stupid.

My second piece of advice is to make sure that you use your brand purpose to guide what you do and, if you can’t, then you either have the wrong purpose or the wrong commercial model to make it happen.

Using it means a lot of stakeholder management to get it off the ground and then some ongoing conflict. The CMO should be the conscience of the organisation – the person around the board table who asks: “Why are we doing that? It doesn’t serve our purpose.” I’m a big fan of the Hedgehog concept in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, where he gives examples of companies who let certain opportunities for revenue go, because they don’t fit with their purpose. 

Hard to do, but a test of whether you really mean it.

How can brand purpose be assessed, analysed and improved? Is it all too ethereal, or are there hard facts marketers can use to refine their brand purpose?

It’s hard to assess if it’s not connected with how you actually do business and make money – if it’s a side project to tick a box. 

It should be the reason behind your product/service choices, as well as your marcomms, and that in itself will make it easier to measure impact.

Your brand purpose should be a thread through all of your marketing activity and, if it can’t be – because it doesn’t help you win more business – then your brand purpose is probably wrong. So, I would definitely look at measures of how much people engage with the purpose-led messages, products and activities versus any that currently don’t as a starting point.

I guess that how to measure seems more obvious for charities or arts organisations – where their existence is based on solving some sort of social problem and/or educating the world on it. Ironically, one of their challenges is that people who donate to the cause complain if 100% of it doesn’t go to the front-line cause, and I see charities having to justify that 10p of £1 donated pays their staff or 5p is spent on marketing to get the next £1. I wonder what might happen if commercial organisations put that much scrutiny on what proportion of their revenue comes from purpose-led buyers and how much of that they re-invest in the next one. Maybe there’s a smarter ROI model here that we can learn from charities?

If your answers haven’t answered the critics already, what do you say to any marketer who rejects brand purpose?

Look to nature. Everything has a purpose in the ecosystem and things that don’t add any value or have a real purpose tend to die out.

How do you see brand purpose evolving in the future? Has the pandemic perhaps catalysed the need for companies to be seen as more than just a business?

I think the pandemic has intensified the need for real human connection and meaning, so yes, I think it will evolve. I hope it will evolve to be something every business has at the core of what they do – not just being ‘seen’ to have one.

I think the pandemic has also accelerated a trend we were already seeing from millennials. More and more they want to work for companies who have a purpose, who are honest about who they are and what they do. They are also prepared to call-out businesses who put profit above their stated purpose and serving people.

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