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Purpose | Brand purpose too often adds a thin veneer of respectability

Purpose | Brand purpose too often adds a thin veneer of respectability

Product purpose is a more intrinsic way to impact customer experience

Simon Law

Chief Strategy Officer



This year, it feels like the debate around brands lies in the very essence of what a brand is and does, what a brand delivers today and how that’s delivered in a way that connects with people. Maybe this is overly dramatic, but there’s a sense that the very meaning of brands is being questioned and challenged. And a big part of that stems from the rush to “brand purpose” that became such a driving force for brands in the past.

When it works, brand purpose signals a brand with beliefs that go beyond making a great product and creates a greater message. Nike has genuine purpose... believing that athletes can have opinions, that athletes are experts and not just Olympians. Nike expanded what athleticism means. It’s the great beliefs that emanate from the core of the brand, that drive communications, that inspire investment, that influence decision-making, and are reflected in Nike’s product range. That’s a single example, but the point is simple—brand purpose can be a potent force for good.

However, things aren’t always so pure and good. Brand Purpose, sadly, has been grossly abused as a strategy because it isn’t always a reflection of true beliefs. At worst, brand purpose is a blatantly thin veneer that people ignore, mock or contest. Think Pepsi and Gillette, as recent examples of brands that stumbled in their efforts to connect their brands with progressive social change.

These brands may have been sincere in intent, but they were faulty in execution. However, the worst offenders are the myriad brands that we’ve all ignored because the message is so pointless that it doesn’t even spark debate within the industry. Brands that talk meaning when they have zero connection to the cause for which they’re “advocating.”

The world today hides very little, and brands need to expect that every aspect of production will be exposed by the press, advocacy groups, and even consumers. Packaging can be made more environmentally-friendly, but that doesn’t warrant an eco-purpose if you’re busy decimating palm trees to obtain ingredients the product you wrap so conscientiously.

If we recognize that brands are built on experiences—consistent, reliable, honest experiences—then we need to look beyond a workshop to define brand purpose and uncover the truths of our products and the reality of what people expect from them.

Would it be better if we sought out “product purpose” instead? A product purpose will drive your brand because it’s based in the thing that you make and so you have more chance of impacting experiences rather than adding a veneer. Plus, you’re guaranteed to be closer to what your customers/consumers/users are connecting with in the first place.

It doesn't mean we're ignoring brand, just because we start from a product point of view. At the same time, remember that “purpose” isn’t the only way to build your brand. And just because you aren’t marketing purpose, doesn’t mean you’ll be forgiven for failing to improve the impact you have on our planet.