The Purpose of the Purpose

Words by Christina Blache
Date 2022-04-06

Purpose is everywhere. Marketing departments put it on the agenda as they feel the need for more purpose-led branding, and executives and board members jump on the purpose bandwagon as they recognise its potential impact on growth. It’s a key topic for agencies, consultancies, branding and transformation experts, who all want a slice of the purpose cake. And it’s discussed on social media by consumers, who show a growing interest in purpose-driven brands but are also quick to bash empty slogans.

Rarely has a term been more discussed and dismissed, regarded and reviewed, misunderstood and misused recently than purpose. While some perceive it as their North Star and key driver for transformation, for others it’s purely a marketing farce; greenwashing and exercise in delusional narcissism.

You can find as many studies that demonstrate how great the impact of purpose-led marketing is as you can find reports that show its failure. Ad campaigns are praised and awarded — until they face a consumer backlash.

However, the concept of purpose is not new. Marketeers and branding experts have spent time and creative efforts to identify, define and communicate the purpose of their brands for years. It’s just that they didn’t necessary call it brand purpose. Perhaps brand DNA, brand essence, brand core, (insert other fancy marketing term here), but ultimately, they all describe something similar — the one unique element that sits at the heart of the brand, the one that differentiates and connects with consumers on an emotional level. Finding an engaging brand purpose is not always easy — but pretty straightforward.

This is now changing. The purpose of the purpose is no longer clear. Some people perceive it predominantly as a marketing tool, with the ultimate objective to drive sales and growth. Others use purpose to define their strategic direction, to engage their people and drive transformation. And for some, it has a higher meaning that is focused on the greater good, with an ambition that goes beyond business goals.

None of these approaches to purpose is necessarily wrong, if it is followed through coherently. But where it goes off the rails is when companies mix up their intention with reality.

Actions speak louder than words

If a brand purpose is being largely leveraged as a marketing tool, it doesn’t need to follow a noble cause. That is okay. Not every chocolate bar needs to save the planet. Not every toothpaste has to make the world a better place. It might be more effective to engage with consumers on a human level that relates directly to the product.

But if a purpose is set out with a higher ambition, the approach goes much wider than marketing. It has to live in the business and needs to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It must be driven at organisational level and align how the company operates. Patagonia is successful with its purpose because it is their reality. The company was founded with the intention to support environmental causes and has always dedicated a significant slice of its profits to it.

What a brand says is less important than what it does, and its purpose has to be real. In this age of digital transparency, customers can see through it. They don’t trust a brand to build communities if it sells their data. They don’t believe a company’s commitment to gender equality if their executives are all male. And they don’t want to hear how much a brand loves the planet if its supply chain is contributing to its demise.

But companies are not just competing for customers; they are also competing for talent. Attracting and retaining the right people becomes an increasing challenge. And as employees’ motivation and selection criteria are changing, especially among younger generations, a clear purpose can help to engage and inspire colleagues. But again, the purpose has to live inside the organisation and be followed through, from the top down and the bottom up.

Purpose is fashionable but it is more than just a fad and is likely to stay. And it is our responsibility as an agency to help our clients to develop and articulate a purpose with substance – one that is true to them and comes from within. It may or may not make the world a better place.