Purpose Doesn't Need Rethinking -- It Needs To Be Done Properly

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, July 26, 2022

The debate around the role and effectiveness of purpose for brands continues to roll on. 

In recent months we have seen many different commentators enter the fray, and those stoking the debate rarely arrive without an agenda -- whether it's an investor demanding change or a leader seeking profile.

Those questioning the value of purpose were arguably given fuel for their arguments with the recent publication of research from Gfk, which found that purpose-driven ads fall short in gaining and holding attention. 

Specifically, while three-quarters of mainstream ads were able to capture attention, the proportion dropped to two-thirds for purpose ads. And while more than half of mainstream ads kept viewers engaged, the figure was 11 points lower for purpose creative. 

The report concluded that new approaches to purpose are needed.

At an individual company level, this might be the case. But equally, the conclusion might be masking a fundamental premise about purpose that needs to be clearly understood, before analysis and judgement about effectiveness is brought to bear. 



When considering purpose, we must understand the difference between business purpose and brand purpose. The two are quite distinct. 

Business purpose is not optional.

The pressures for businesses to operate in ways that tackle rather than create the problems of people and the planet are rapidly increasing -- whether that is pressure from consumers, investors, governments or even the planet itself, making unsustainable and harmful business practices increasingly difficult to maintain.

Secondly, brand purpose is optional and should be seen as a marketing tactic that is strategically adopted where suitable.

As with all other marketing tactics, it can be executed well, poorly or anything in between. And as we have seen with other marketing tactics, such as digital or social, there is a journey we must collectively go on toward a future of successful brand purpose.

The report argues for a three-pillar approach, but based on a clear understanding of business purpose and brand purpose, I would challenge this and argue for a slightly different strategy.

It's questionable whether there is a need for "new approaches." Arguably, the problem is that some companies are currently not getting the fundamentals of purpose right.

A clear, authentic, business purpose that is embedded in the DNA of the organization and how it operates is the crucial bedrock. Without this, purpose activation through marketing and communication stands little chance of success. 

We believe that getting the fundamentals of purpose right can be achieved through a seven-step journey.

1.  A future we can start traveling toward today

2.  A roadmap that ensures everyone reaches the same destination.

3.  A vehicle through which others can join us on the journey

4.  Tools that help everyone build momentum

5. Missions that represent specific landmarks along the way

6. Positions that ensure we can deal with whatever is in our path

7. Alliances that help get us to the destination we seek

By focusing on these steps, businesses can ensure they are heading in the right direction and that their purpose truly delivers.

There is always room for innovation along the way, but the important thing is getting the fundamentals right first. Otherwise, you risk veering off into the realms of distraction, inefficiency and failure.

The report argues for the need to be "clear, focused and brief." Clearly this is important in all forms of communication. But more specifically, in purpose communications, we would argue that "evidence-based, brand-led, and impact-driven" is the way forward.

Evidence-based. How do we know the given purpose creates positive associations with our audience? This isn’t rocket science and is a principle we’ve been applying to other marketing strategies for decades, and purpose is no different. We must use evidence to help us understand what our audiences care about most.

Brand-led. How does a business apply purpose through the unique lens of its brand? Businesses won’t differentiate themselves on their purpose statement. They build reputation through the actions they take toward that purpose. By taking actions that are fitting to the brand, purpose can build brand equity in the same way as other marketing strategies.

Impact-driven. Have we made a measurable difference that justifies our communications? Just as ROIs are important for other areas of marketing, we must also measure the return on purpose campaigns. But instead of focussing solely on campaign impact, measured in views and engagements, we must look at the impact actions have on the issues they are tackling, and the impact they have on the brand in terms of fame, consideration and loyalty and so on. 

Finally, some purpose campaigns fail simply because the brand lacks a business purpose or a clear, appropriate business purpose.

Successful brand purpose campaigns need to start with a clear business purpose. So it’s not so much about the balance between the brand and the cause -- as the report argues -- but rather, about the relationship between business purpose and brand purpose. 

Budweiser’s Energy Collective campaign, which won Silver in the Creative Business Transformation Lions this year, demonstrates the power of business purpose and brand purpose working together. 

Defining a future that a company can start traveling toward is critical.

In order to do that, they must look inside and throughout the business.

Purpose is less often created than extracted. The challenge is then executing a brand purpose that builds reputation among audiences in a credible way that is rooted in the business purpose.

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