Do B2B brands need purpose anyway?

The word ‘purpose’ has roared onto the marketing scene in recent years. And now it seems every marketing director and brand manager worth their salt is eagerly embracing higher goals that demonstrate the noble impact their business has on the world. But is it truly necessary for brands to have a purpose beyond solving customer needs?

It may help to first agree on what we mean by brand purpose. The generally accepted definition is that a brand’s purpose is its “reason for being beyond making money.” This beautifully altruistic notion would have felt very out of place just a few decades ago when businesses could unashamedly exist to generate as much money as possible for their shareholders. Today, however, the tide of public opinion has turned and not all business is seen as good business. With heightened awareness of the environmental cost of consumption and of the economic disparities around the world, the idea of making profit at almost any cost is no longer universally tolerated. Journalists and social media platforms now routinely draw negative attention towards companies that fail to uphold the highest ethical and moral standards. The result is that many businesses in the public eye are now judged on their overall impact on the world, not simply on their capacity to make money.

The response of the marketing profession has been to place greater emphasis on communicating the broader benefits that the company and its brands bring to society. From the early days of wallpapering over the cracks with wafer-thin CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives, statements of brand purpose—and direct actions to support this—have emerged as a more credible response to demands from belief-driven customers for businesses to do the right thing. But does every business need a purpose beyond making money? And how do you identify what your purpose should be?

My first principle for identifying whether a brand purpose is needed and what it should be is that anything we do must, above all else, make sense to our customers and employees. Some companies, perhaps enamoured by the ease with which they can distract attention by overlaying weak CSR initiatives, co-opt a brand purpose by donating funds or supplies to local charities or causes. While the help is always welcomed by the recipient organisation, this approach often fails to stand up to scrutiny by customers and employees. Worse still, some commentators will see through the mask and call it out for what it is: “fake purpose”, borrowed temporarily to distract attention and create the illusion that the company cares about more than just making money.

To avoid this pitfall, I urge clients to begin by re-examining the benefits their products and services bring to the world and spending more time thinking about the people they help. From this vantage point, you can start exploring more relevant, credible purposes that will radiate relevance to your customers and employees. For instance, if you work for a plumbing supplies company, your brand purpose could lie in helping people drink more water—the ultimate product benefit—so they stay fitter and live longer. Your brand purpose activities would then focus on spreading this healthy lifestyle message to the widest possible audience, not just your customers. If, instead, you work for a B2B insurance provider, you might wish to align your company with a mission to reduce danger in the workplace by promoting advice and support that helps eliminate risk. By highlighting, for example, innovative safety improvements, you could demonstrate your purpose-driven commitment to helping companies keep people safe and well.

Which brings me, rather circuitously, back to my initial question: do B2B brands need a purpose anyway?

For all of today’s excitement about brand purpose, the brutal truth is that product quality, value for money, and brand trust will always take priority in a buyer’s mind. And experienced B2B buyers weigh up performance and cost factors before anything else; only a fool would buy a product that’s unlikely to solve the problem they face.

However, at a time when many B2B buyers are also tasked with supporting their own company’s values, the brand trust component is becoming a more significant driver of the final purchase decision. Companies that lack a common or relevant purpose may find themselves excluded from the final consideration set, giving competitors who demonstrate their purpose more clearly an opportunity to muscle out incumbent suppliers.

Sustaining and winning buyer trust is the primary reason I now believe it is essential for every B2B business to embrace a relevant brand purpose. Without it, sales leads and opportunities can easily slip through your fingers.

To help clients find their brand purpose, I encourage them to think of it as the icing on a great brand cake. It is the topmost layer of meaning that we add to our communications work and day-to-day activities to enhance the joy of consuming the cake (the products or services we sell). A layer of icing alone simply will not cut it; you need a great cake underneath too.

When smart organisations embrace brand purpose intelligently, customers and prospects begin to see why and how a company exists for more than just profit. Brand purpose can be a powerful unifying force, bringing together employees, customers, and partners around a relevant cause. It can also be a source of much-needed emotional relevance for B2B brands, communicating societal benefits that carry more meaning than product functionality.

Defining a brand purpose and developing smart programmes that will embed it across the organisation are now crucial tasks for B2B brand marketers to lead.

If you would like to learn more about building strong, purpose driven B2B brands, join our online training workshop that explores this topic in depth.