‘Brand purpose is dead’

‘Brand purpose isn’t dead’

‘Brand purpose needs to get real’


There’s been a lot of talk about brand purpose in recent years. Even more in (post-apocalyptic) 2020. It has become synonymous with social good – about campaigning for something bigger. And somehow the idea of cause or purpose-driven marketing has got all mixed up with the very definition of brand purpose.


Warc define brand purpose simply as ‘a reason for your brand to exist beyond making profit’. And that, at its core, is brand purpose. It’s your stake in the ground – the thing that you stand for, that your customer promise must be able to fall out of. It’s not the same as Corporate Social Responsibility or a purpose-led campaign (although your CSR should of course align with purpose).


WeWork is a good example. Their purpose: ‘A world where people work to make a life, not just a living’. This purpose enables them to deliver their core ‘product’ - super cool, well thought through flexible workspaces that inspire a positive working day experience. It also allows them to make a difference via well aligned CSR initiatives - like grants for black-owned businesses or ‘We Work for Good’ grants to help students with disabilities in the world of work.


Image courtesy of Gretel


Another great example of brand purpose is Crayola. Their purpose is beautiful: ‘Encouraging children to be creative, and enabling adults to inspire them’. It’s not just about selling crayons but it is genuine ‘shoes’ that the brand can fill, that links to the products they offer - and it allows them to meaningfully get involved in educational initiatives.


Image courtesy of Crayola


And yet there is much talk around brand purpose being dead, overdone, empty, shallow… and some commentators cite that Pepsi and Kendall Jenner disaster as proof.


But really, how can brand purpose be dead if it is just your reason for existing beyond making profit?  What we really mean is that brands jumping on a bandwagon of purpose-led marketing – without real foundations underneath the words – is dead.


Brand purpose is built and not borrowed. It’s a truth that comes from somewhere, and genuinely flows through everything from your product offering to internal culture, as the above examples have shown.


However, brands are enticed by the purpose-driven campaign trend, and by impressive figures like those shared by Unilever. Their purpose-led Sustainable Living brands grew 69% faster than the rest of their portfolio in 2018.


Cue a tonne of brands trying to jump behind social causes in the name of brand purpose, and doing it badly.


Let’s look at Pantone’s ‘period red’ colour launch for example, which aimed to ‘end menstruation stigma’. This doesn’t work for two reasons. First and key question: why is this a relevant issue for Pantone to be discussing? (you’re not Bodyform, guys). Secondly, the messaging misses the mark - causing it to feel shallow and token-like (show me a woman who describes menstruation as ‘active and adventurous’ – as they describe their red hue).



Just… why?


Misses like the above are common. In contrast, Ben and Jerry’s have always been the champions of how purpose-led marketing should be. Yes, they clearly have a great team behind their comms but the fundamental difference is that they just do believe in the stuff they campaign for. Their purpose-led marketing does relate back to their brand purpose. (Remember what I said about built not borrowed?)


Ben and Jerry’s have been campaigning for social justice way before purpose-led marketing was a thing. Their founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield built a global brand without ever setting out to do so – from the humble beginnings of a single ice-cream truck out of a garage forecourt in Vermont. The story goes that as the brand grew, they quickly realised that corporate money making was not massively appealing to them being ‘children of the 60s’. They have often stated that their personal ideologies are more aligned to social good and progressivism, than being cogs in the economic machine. Yet, rather than pack it all in as their business grew into something bigger than they had intended, they decided to grow the brand differently - making social activism part of their reason for existing.


Despite Ben and Jerry’s now being a Unilever brand, these roots still run through the business. It’s this clear alignment with purpose that has allowed them to be so impactful, genuine and successful in their social cause-led campaigns.


For example, they have been campaigning against racial inequality in the US for some time - publishing articles on progressive topics, supporting reparations for African Americans and supporting the cause with new products like the anti-Trump Pecan Resist flavour.


Image courtesy of Ben and Jerry’s


 Not a wishy washy statement in sight - image courtesy of Ben and Jerry's


So, it’s not ‘rest in peace’ for brand purpose or purpose-led marketing. Brands can and have been leading the way with purpose-led campaigns successfully for years, but those that succeed, see them as more than a purpose-led campaign. There is real action behind communication. Brand purpose is not a trend - it’s the truth behind your brand, the genuine reason as to why you’re here for your customers.

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