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Purpose - it's not what you might think

Purpose - it's not what you might think  

Why the debate around purpose needs more clarity

Andreas Ebeling

Brand Strategy, Insights Division


Kantar, Germany

Everyone’s talking about brand purpose, and with good reason. Purpose can be an important driving force for a business, not only in marketing, but the entire enterprise. But purpose is also being seen in some quarters as a sure-fire way to put brands on the road to success in uncertain times. The problem here is that purpose is too often equated with morality marketing or corporate social responsibility (CSR). These are different concepts, which unfortunately are too often lumped together. It has all become rather confusing.

Purpose is the reason why the brand exists

So, what is brand purpose? It’s the reason why the brand does what it does; the reason it exists. It provides an answer to the question of what we want to achieve with our products or services. From this standpoint, the idea of purpose is nothing new. In successful companies, the purpose is usually clear from the outset. As an entrepreneur, you have an idea you believe in - a service that you can perform particularly well; something you can use to inspire customers and make their lives a little better. This makes the purpose the driving force that guides action, not only in marketing, but ideally throughout the entire company. 

How CSR is different

It’s a common misconception that purpose is the same thing as socially responsible entrepreneurship. Acting in a socially responsible manner as a company is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Because most companies are perceived through the lens of their brands, brands are inevitably taking center stage here. In this context, the two concepts are: corporate social responsibility and taking a stance.

CSR means acting responsibly as a company, both internally and externally, and putting this into practice through appropriate goals, processes and initiatives. With CSR, the focus is on people and the environment in the broadest sense – climate change, working conditions, production conditions, animal welfare, regional development and social commitment in general.

Morality marketing means taking a stance, such as a brand expressing a clear position on a subject such as diversity, or another social or political issue, be it refugees or world peace. Taking a stance publicly as a brand means throwing the weight of the visibility and power of the company behind the issue. This takes courage, because taking a stance can also be polarizing.

Too often, though, CSR and taking a stance are seen as synonyms for purpose, which leads to uncertainty in brand management.

The following points are important in applying the concepts of purpose, stance and CSR:

I. Think of purpose, stance and CSR as distinct

Purpose can also be expressed with a stance – but it doesn’t have to be, and brands should not have their purpose forced into a stance because of current events. For example, the purpose of BMW is “To provide the ultimate driving experience”. Sustainability issues play a major role, of course, and like every mobility company, BMW has to do its homework and lead the way if possible. But sustainable mobility is not BMW’s purpose. There are examples where these elements do, however, work together. Dove, for instance, uses its Campaign for Real Beauty to sell beauty products to women all over the world, while relieving them of the burden of traditional beauty ideals. Similarly, HiPP has long demonstrated that purpose and socially responsible initiatives can go hand in hand.

II. Purpose must be a good fit for your product or service

When defining your purpose, you should always be guided by the original service or product offered by the brand. The purpose is usually already contained in the brand. It is then a matter of formulating your own ambitions and the particular strengths of the product and service in such a way that the purpose prescribes action, both for today and tomorrow.

III. Not every company can save the world

Many consumers say they prefer brands that are committed to higher goals, but when it comes to actually making a purchase, decisions often come down to things like need, design, features, and what someone wants to be seen with.

IV. Beware of greenwashing 2.0 

Care must be taken to ensure that purpose-washing does not become the new greenwashing. Most people are finely attuned to whether a brand is serious or whether it is just trying to show itself in a good light. Large, established brands in particular have to watch out for this. To announce a purpose or stance out of the blue is likely to provoke a backlash, as recently demonstrated by Gillette, which sparked controversy with its campaign to guide modern men’s behavior.

In summary, purpose, stance and socially responsible action are all important for brands, and in many cases, they are linked. But it is essential to ensure the differences remain clearly in view.