Brand purpose

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What is brand purpose?

For senior marketers who came up with a Jack Welsh influenced shareholder value focus, brand purpose was a seductive concept for otherwise empty and meaningless careers that could even be considered ‘bullshit jobs‘. Brand purpose campaigns are not coming from the need of consumers mostly but from the desire of marketeers to do something good of their day, of achieving something more than just selling a humdrum product.

In essence it is the same drive that motivated the apochrical question from Steve Jobs to future Apple CEO John Sculley

Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

John Sculley recalling Steve Jobs pitch on a documentary profile of Jobs that was part of the Bloomberg Game Changers series.

In recent years over 90 percent of Cannes Lions winners were found to focus on brand purpose. In 2016, the Singapore office of advertising agency Grey created a fake brand purpose campaign for Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) designed to dupe consumers and award judges. The I Sea app was supposed to crowdsource help to spot refugees, but it was built on fake data.

Brand promise

Historically the focus has been on the brand promise – the idea of what a consumer can expect from the product or service. An example of this would be First Direct – a branchless bank providing its services by telephone and internet instead. It is a retail bank division of HSBC that was founded back in 1989.

Brand purpose, goes way beyond brand promise and is is the brand’s reason for being beyond making money, sales or profit – it’s a framework that guides business decisions and thought processes. A brand purpose is supposed to connect with consumers at a more emotional level. It is why the brand exists and should guide the brand’s mission that differentiates it from others.

By 2014 you had marketing royalty like David Aaker endorsing brand purpose, or as he called it Higher Purpose. It was further popularised in management by the 2017 publication of The Guiding Purpose Strategy: A Navigational Code for Growth is a book by Markus Kramer and Tofig Huseynzade. Kramer and Huseynzade looked at purpose at an organisational level and how it should be brought to life through brand management.

Corporate and social responsibility (CSR) is not brand purpose

It is distinct from earlier concepts like CSR or corporate responsibility as US organisations often prefer to say. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by example. One of my first clients was Verizon Wireless the US mobile carrier. They used to donate pre-used cellphones, together with free services to charitable organisations like women’s shelters in the New Jersey area where they were headquartered. While they meant well, this clearly wasn’t the key focus of their business, but did make use of edge effects brought about by customers upgrading their phones.

I helped them template this activity in markets were they had an international presence at the time:

  • Czech Republic
  • Greece
  • Indonesia
  • Italy
  • Mexico
  • Slovakia

The role of CSR can be for many reasons:

  • Being a good corporate citizen
  • Being closer to the community to better understand the environment
  • Pipelining new talent for the business (like Shell’s Young Engineer programme)
  • The act as a counterweight to negate negative effects of having the business in the area. A classic example of this would be education and health clinics for communities where there is oil drilling

Is brand purpose effective?

We know that purpose lead marketing is 30% less effective than non purpose campaigns according to Peter Field, so purpose shouldn’t be seen as a money making decision. In fact, being prepared to forgo money if necessary is a hygiene factor in a brad purpose. Ethical behaviour won’t necessarily generate revenue.

Brand purpose is most likely to demonstrate effectiveness internally, where it can get people to do more for a company they believe in and matches a set of internalised values. Internal altruism and work life are aligned – they aren’t working in a bullshit job.

Risk management

Business risk management has a number of challenges with brand purpose. The moral challenges and perceived required speed of reaction poses problems for brand purpose risk.

Glocal nature of purpose

There have been a procession of (foreign) multinational companies that have committed costly perceived slights in China. Western businesses such as Nike have generally erred on the side of a Chinese brand purpose for profit and a perceived lower risk of reaction from western customers. For example Nike Withdraws Products After Brand Partner Vexed China for Supporting HK | Jing Daily or how western brands responded to China’s Xinjiang boycotts including concealing past corporate statements or flip-flopping like Fila, H&M and Hugo Boss.

TL;DR – brands are most afraid of offending: Chinese consumers > western consumers > developing world consumers – though this may change with de-globalisation.

Bringing a knife to a gun flight

The Unilever board have been pummelled by shareholder reactions to its brand purpose driven approach

Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business. The most obvious manifestation of this is the public spat it has become embroiled in over the refusal to supply Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the West Bank. However, we think there are far more ludicrous examples which illustrate the problem. A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).

Terry Smith, Letter to Investors (January 2022) United Kingdom: Fundsmith Limited.

Fundsmith is one of the top ten largest shareholders in Unilever at the time. This then set the tone for activist investor Nelson Peltz to secure a seat on the company board

Having a position

Having a position is a risk in itself. Some brands notably Dunkin Donuts Refuses to Get Woke: ‘We Are Not Starbucks’ just focus on their brand promise. They keep consumer expectations realistically low. Contrast this with Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s who took a position on the Palestine question and the invasion of Ukraine. In the case of Israel, Ben & Jerry’s independent board has taken Unilever to court over an attempt to stop sales inside Israel.

Purposeful consumer behaviour

Consumers generally have good intentions. They mostly consider themselves charitable, an example of the Lake Wobegon effect named after the fictional town featured on the US radio show A Prairie Home Companion. In reality, only 20-25 percent of consumers donate to charity. Consumers green tendencies seem to vary with the state of economy according to longitudinal research conducted by Gallup, regardless of their generation. Price is still the key consideration for consumers, but brand purpose can increased the perceived benefit for a consumer when considering similarly priced products.

Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor

Purpose is perceived as being of key importance to consumers because of misinterpretation of of market research and poor research design such as making a false association between the correlation of successful brands and assuming purpose as the causality.

Consumers don’t think every issue have the same weight, they are likely to feel more personally connected to health, economic and societal issues. Political, business or legal issues of brand companies are considered to be ‘hygiene’ factors.


One of the key challenges with brand purpose is that many brands have approached in a superficial manner at best. Superficiality might be one of perspective, for instance, Nike supported Colin Kaepernick and other progressive causes, but also funded right-wing Republican Party politicians. Progressive leaning consumers may feel betrayed or gaslit.

Les Binet of Adam and Eve outlined a good test of brand purpose

Purpose bullshit detector. Ok, you have a brilliant new purpose drive marketing initiative.

1) Would you still do it if you couldn’t publicise it?

2) Would you still do it if reduced your long term profits?

If the answer to either question is no, then it’s not purpose driven.

Les Binet on Twitter

Purpose-washing isn’t new and can see its roots in the ‘greenwashing’ of the mid-1980s where companies claimed ‘green behaviours’ that were designed to cut costs, or create the illusion of caring for the environment.

Brand purpose examples

Brand purpose examples become difficult. Patagonia would be amongst the first brands that would be used as an example. It’s an unusual company that inspired other brands like Warby Parker and Toms. Things start to fall down when you look at large corporates.

PepsiCo tried to pivot towards nutrition as a brand strategy and purpose focus in the early 2010s under then CEO Indra Nooyi, yet still relies on sugar filled drinks for its business.

I worked at Unilever on Family Brands, what people in the UK would know as Flora margarine, when the company mandated that every brand had to ‘find its brand purpose’. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ success sparked a change over at Unilever.

Dove’s brand vision / purpose is interesting because it came out of a consumer insight. After surveying 3,000 women across 10 countries the brand team found only 4% considered themselves beautiful. Further research found that a majority of girls had anxiety about how they looked.

We believe beauty should be a source of confidence, and not anxiety. That’s why we are here to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realise their full potential.

Our Vision – Dove.

Note that while Dove has a successful men’s range of products, men and boys self esteem or confidence isn’t a concern of Dove’s brand purpose despite academic research suggesting similar issues.

Then CEO Paul Polman focused Unilever on its Sustainable Living Plan and brand purpose was at the centre of it.

Those that didn’t have one were to be sold off. We focused the flora relaunch around being ‘Powered by Plants’. The reality is that I was working on a product known by different brands in much of the 23 or so countries that it was sold in. In the UK, there was the health aspects of Flora versus butter and the vegan credentials. In Kenya and other parts of Africa it was about nutrition for children in the family and the superior shelf life compared to butter. Despite its brand purpose, yellow fats were perceived to be a lower growth sector and the business spun off to Upfield. Money trumped purpose, although Polman has continued to advocate for a change in business practices with his book Net Positive.

Unilever has stumbled with its brand purpose focus, being too focused on it for active investors and insufficiently focused on it in the eyes of other stakeholders, including company insiders.

The pharmaceutical industry is beset with conflicting views regarding brand purpose. The companies will view their products has having a live changing or life saving brand purpose, where as external views will be more concerned about predatory pricing and the non-inclusive access that is a side effect. For instance, one in five people with diabetes in the US have rationed their insulin usage due to high costs.

Secondly you had lifestyle medicines, notably Pfizer’s Viagra, but still no breakthrough AIDS vaccine. Finally there was the exploitative nature of Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson providing opioids for pain relief that drove a crisis in addiction.

Many commentators would cite Nike but the examples are problematic:

  • Their FlyEase design approach that enables disabled people to participate in sports, is a great example of accessible design. But disabled customers have found them hard to obtain as they flew off the shelf. Accessible design benefits able-bodied consumers too
  • Plus size activewear could be just about capitalising on the obesity epidemic, rather than truly inclusive sports participation
  • Supporting Colin Kaepernick and taking the knee for racial justice is at odds with other Nike behaviours including the nature of their supply chain. While anti-sweatshop campaign dented Nike’s reputation in the 1990s, it still has appalling labour conditions today.

What about Mattel who have been trying to bake representation into their products. For example Hot Wheels releases a remote-controlled wheelchair that flips & spins – brand purpose or will Hot Wheels have its ‘Joey Deacon’ moment?

Brand purpose thinking from academia and the advertising industry

Articles like this one in AdAge have helped to drive the brand purpose movement: Gen Z doesn’t want to buy your brand, they want to join it | AdAgeThis group isn’t waiting for brands to lead on issues. Instead, they’re leading. Since movements rarely come with a business case or cost-benefit analysis, marketers must consider how they can partner with Gen Z to become more involved and deliver on the promise of purpose (paywall)

Brands take note: The purpose of purpose is purposeMost of the data used to support the case for brand purpose is verbal, spoken data which lays itself open to the ‘intention-action gap’ that exists between what people say they will do and what actually transpires. That gap is particularly large with topics like brand purpose because social desirability bias leads respondents to, knowingly or unknowingly, overclaim the importance of purpose in their purchase decisions in order to look less like a wanker. But there is a bigger, more pressing question now being asked of brand purpose. As we enter a recession, we know – from bitter past experience – that customers will change their behaviour in the tricky months ahead. In May, Kantar was already showing a significant proportion of the market (albeit, again, with spoken rather than derived data) switching to lower priced options. Such moves are not a uniform downgrade of every brand for a cheaper alternative. In order to justify the continued purchase of some premium brands that are deemed different and meaningful enough to retain their place, customers trade down on weaker, less essential fare – Mark Ritson takes a pragmatic view on brand purpose in this Marketing Week op-ed. Meanwhile Byron Sharp over at the Ehrensberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science has even greater concern about brand purpose: Purpose could be ‘the death of brands’, warns Byron Sharp 

Richard Shotton on brand purpose: ‘marketers have fallen out of love with marketing’ | The Drum

The Future of Purpose – TrendWatching – Trendwatching’s take fits in with Richard Shotton’s view …in 2020, consumers will embrace businesses that BREAK the CODE of the brand DNA or their entire industry in the name of a more ethical or sustainable consumerism.

Think a superband that doesn’t tour, a fashion magazine with no photoshoots, or an airline that tells passengers to fly less (see innovation examples below).

  • Yes, this is a highly actionable trend, and a tactical chance to prove to consumers that you really get the scale of the challenge ahead. But it’s being driven by deep shifts in the nature of status, innovation and transparency…
  • Unconsumed Status. Status has always been a key driver of consumption behaviors. But via rising awareness of social and environmental damages, the nature of consumer status is changing radically. That means rising numbers fulfilling their status quest by seeking out new brands and new modes of consumption that reimagine, or even invert, old attitudes and priorities.
  • Clean Slate Mindset. Today, purpose-driven insurgents can become mega-brands that shake the mainstream faster than ever. Tesla is rewriting the rules of automotive; Impossible Burger those of meat. That’s driving expectations across all industries that legacy codes can and must be rewritten in the name of a better consumerism.

Brand purpose. The biggest lie the ad industry ever told? – Tom Roach 

Mark Ritson: A true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it | Marketing Week 

“Brand purpose” is a lie – a lot of truth in this Fast Company op-ed and this article from 2017: Truthiness in marketing: is the evidence behind brand purpose flawed? | The Drum 

Study of award entries reveals tighter budgets and a struggle to achieve ‘brand purpose’ – Mumbrella Asia 

This Brand is Late Capitalism | Rachel Connolly 

One last thing

I have a related post on environmental and social governance (ESG) which looks to apply the doing well, by doing good philosophy that is also behind brand purpose.