by Andy Rice (@ricecommaandy) Not since Rolls met Royce have two words been so intimately joined at the hip. The concept of brand purpose has become so ingrained in the marketing vernacular that nowadays my phone’s spellcheck offers it as an option long before I’ve finished typing the phrase. I’m almost tempted to find an alternative expression just to get the satisfaction of proving to those smarty-pants at Google that they know nothing about the world of brand strategy and the language that’s used to convey it.
But inevitably, as ubiquity grows, so does imprecision. Like brands themselves, the more widespread the use of the concept of brand purpose, the less easily we seem to be able to define it. It’s become the catch-all bucket into which we put everything about a brand’s behaviour that isn’t ruthlessly rational or conclusively justified by a mountain of carefully collected data. It’s a slippery beast, this idea of purposeful branding and, as a result, it’s hard to get our hands and heads around it. It slithers away and out of the spotlight far too easily.
Let’s try to bring it back to centre stage by starting with a definition of brand purpose. All brand consultants have their pet definition, so there’s no shortage of choice, but my preference is for the one coined by the World Advertising Research Centre (WARC):
“Purpose is a reason for a brand to exist beyond making profit. When it’s done well, a brand identifies a purpose that relates to its core product or service that not only puts it at an advantage commercially but it also benefits a broader community who may — or may not — be consumers of the brand.”
This definition is neither verbose nor intimidating, which makes it more likely that marketers will be tempted to explore the concept further, which in turn is to be welcomed because, when the hubbub and the dust die down, brand custodians will quickly see that properly managed purpose can build a brand’s equity and differentiation more rapidly than almost anything else they’ll find in those well-thumbed textbooks of their student days.
So, who’s to blame for this sudden explosion of interest in what brands can offer beyond their traditional commercial roles? Who is the godfather of brand purpose? If you ask me, I would point to everybody’s favourite guru, Simon Sinek. This astute British-American business consultant, armed with little more than a flipchart, a couple of koki pens and an invitation to speak at TEDx, changed the vocabulary of brand strategy, almost overnight. Elegantly simple, but none the worse for that, Sinek’s thinking has been hailed as the most-convincing articulation of the future of branding since Procter & Gamble coined the concept of brand management itself, 50 and more years ago. Such was Sinek’s persuasiveness that ‘brand purpose’ quickly condemned related concepts such as brand ideals and brand citizenship to the sidelines of marketing theory.
So, if ‘brand purpose’ has become part of the brand landscape, reflecting as it does the contemporary marketing zeitgeist, how much life is there left in the concept? Is it another of those generational ideas that sheds its skin every couple of decades or so? There’s a clue in our friend Sinek’s core business specialisation. His website describes him as being first and foremost an organisational consultant, which suggests something rather more fundamental than simply enhancing brand equity. Organisational consultants shake businesses up to the very core; brand managers are all too often several steps removed from where the real action is (which, incidentally, is why marketers grumble so long and loud about being excluded from the C-suite and a seat on the board).
Marketers can do one of two things in this situation. Either they can keep quiet and accept their status quo as a non-essential discipline, or they can plot a clear path to Sinek territory with the unambiguous objective of putting the brand at the heart of the organisation’s stated purpose. Instead of being driven by financial imperatives, or distribution, or manufacturing, or whatever, the business should put the brand itself at its epicentre in order to become truly brand-centric. The brand purpose has thus become the organisational purpose, and every significant strategic option should be evaluated in terms of its ability to strengthen the brand through living up to its purpose. The ambition should no longer be confined to building a brand-centric marketing department; what is needed goes beyond that, to the idea of creating a brand-centric business strategy.
Successful examples of a brand-centric purposeful organisation are thin on the ground, but that’s most likely due to the fact that it’s difficult, if not downright dangerous, to try to retrofit a purpose into a business that has long held baser beliefs. So, the case studies are most-easily found where the hand of an inspired (and inspirational) leader-founder is evident in all that the brand says and does. Sinek himself uses Apple as his reference point, and it is hard to quarrel with that choice — the biggest company in the world, and one that got to that high point by putting the brand and all its prospective customers right at the centre of its overall strategy. Virgin would be another great example from the world stage, and locally Nando’s is a brand that considers social commentary to be every bit as important as selling spicy chicken. Kulula.com is another local brand that built its success around the demystification of a category that was viewed by many as elitist and unaffordable. By promising that ‘now anyone can fly’, and by adding irreverent humour to the experience, Kulula introduced a whole new market segment previously ignored by its competitors. In the often-cynical world of financial services, too, brands such as Nedbank and Discovery are working hard to rehabilitate the category’s image through adding purpose to their brands.
Some closing cautionaries. We’ve already pointed out that brand purpose is difficult to introduce into long-established, purpose-free zones. The old adage about the time it takes to turn a super tanker around is relevant here; if you haven’t got the stamina for the long haul, don’t try it at all. Don’t confine your message to external audiences, either. Purposeful branding may be a useful tool for effective differentiation out there where your customers play, but its greatest value is in providing a sense of direction and unity for your internal stakeholders. Nothing aligns staff behind a company’s strategy faster than a purpose that they believe in and which they feel they can contribute to.
There’s also a view in some quarters that brands with purpose are only of interest to the younger demographics — millennials, Generation Z and others of their age groups. Quite apart from the ludicrous belief that attitudes and behaviour are somehow driven by birthdate (which makes this kind of segmentation as rigorous as astrology, and about as much use), there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that suggests that our appetite for a sense of purpose diminishes with advancing age. Brands that choose to align themselves with a purpose that resonates with its customers and prospects will always reap the commercial benefits, regardless of the age profile of its audiences.
Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos (another purpose-driven pioneer), recently coined an elegant new definition of a brand. He said that “[y]our brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” If you would prefer that unheard conversation to be one that casts you in a positive light, you can do a lot worse than start by adding a dose of purpose to your brand strategy.
Johannesburg-based Andy Rice (@ricecommaandy) is probably South Africa’s best-known brand strategist, public speaker, and advertising commentator. He is regularly asked to comment on marketing issues of the day and recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers in the brand communications industry.
The article first appeared in the 2019 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing. Find case-studies, profiles and brand news at Co.RetailingAfrica.com. Order your copy of the 25th annual edition now!
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enjoyed this article very much, thanks Andy Rice, for the insight and objectivity
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