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When features convey parity, purpose can differentiate

When features convey parity, purpose can differentiate

Legacy brands must pursue purpose

to retain competitive advantage

Mark Gibbs

Senior Strategist

Wunderman Thompson


Every brand’s purpose is to generate competitive advantage for a business.

In this sense, the future of brands looks much like its past; curating a bank of experiences, associations, and expectations that persuade more people to choose us over our competitors more often, preferably for more money.

And in a world of increasing feature parity, where the tangible benefits of using one soap or phone over another is next to nil, the importance and power of brand in affecting those decisions has never been more valuable, or more difficult to establish.

It’s in this context that we find ourselves in the age of the purpose-driven brand, where businesses hoping to make a dent in saturated markets differentiate not by creating products that are faster, cheaper, or tastier than the competition, but instead by focusing on bringing parity products to market in more responsible ways.

Take the fashion industry as an example, where supply chains are wrought with pollution and exploitation. Suddenly it becomes a competitive advantage for new companies like Everlane to enter the fray with a business model based on ethics, from transparent pricing to photos inside their factories. Everything about their positioning is enabled by the irresponsible behavior of the incumbent and backed-up by business actions that sacrifice profit to stand for something different.

Easily done for a start-up that doesn’t carry the same baggage as a market-leader, but how can legacy brands keep pace and maintain their primacy?

It’s important to remember that the objective is to generate competitive advantage, which can and should include taking steps to reduce the advantage of others. While it might be tempting to simply paper over historic indiscretions with worthy CSR initiatives that create a temporary halo of righteousness, that won’t plug the problems that allow others to differentiate in the first place, leaving their advantage untarnished.

What’s needed is a more significant shift, an idea that acts as the catalyst for change and inspires the organization to remedy those problems. How you get there and whether you label it your “purpose” or “finding-your-why” will be different for all businesses, but the common outcome should always be to strengthen your competitive advantage.

Patagonia is a great example of a business that continually finds ways to put its purpose into action, from investing in higher standards of organic cotton to reselling used clothing. It’s a business that’s fully aware of its flaws, and whose long history of openness and action prevents competitors from disrupting their market from an ethical angle.

When we talk about brand purpose, we should do so metonymically—where “brand” extends to mean “business,” and “purpose” goes deeper than communications to become the guiding principle for how we identify and solve the problems that unavoidably run through legacy organizations. Once those problems no longer exist, being ethical no longer represents a competitive advantage, and legacy brands can go back to playing to their own strengths of scale and history against which new companies can’t possibly compete.


Instilling purpose into a legacy business starts with aligning what you Think, what you Do, and what you Say:

  1. Think Your purpose should first act as an internal rallying cry, a galvanizing thought that unites the organization and defines what the business is or aspires to become.

  1. Do Second, it should be operationalized to find and eradicate any existing problems or barriers that don’t align with this vision. Ensure you’re walking the talk.

  1. Say Only then should purpose be communicated externally and used to guide future partnerships and initiatives.