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Let’s make “purpose” mean something again

Every now and then, the world is set alight by a new buzzword that mesmerizes everyone who falls under its charm.

From what we’ve seen, many businesses are falling for the silky seduction of “brand purpose”. But, as is so often the way with buzzwords, the original purpose of “purpose” has become confused, leaving this powerful concept in jeopardy of marginalization. To define purpose we must answer: “Why does this business exist, beyond making money?” This is a tough, existential question that challenges brand owners to deeply interrogate their role in consumers’ lives and define what problem—whether rational or emotional—they are there to solve.

In the current zeitgeist, there is no doubt that the decision to buy into or reject brands is being greatly influenced by the demands of a more principled millennial consumer. Meanwhile, new charters such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have equipped brands and consumers with a more tangible discourse of what “being good” really looks like. However, the emergence of these factors doesn’t mean that brand purpose has to start and end with a lofty commitment to furthering humankind or protecting the planet.

On the one hand, it is clear that brands must consider the legacy they will leave for future generations and—perhaps now more than ever before—let their ethics guide their daily endeavors. On the other hand, we believe that purpose has become too divorced from many brands’ day-to-day activities, and can consequently fail to resonate. By focusing on a higher-order benefit, far too many brands appear to have set themselves up as a new generation of world-healers, taking on characteristics that have more in common with NGOs than commercial organizations. To the more cynical or exasperated consumer dealing directly with a brand, this can appear deeply inauthentic.

For purpose to resonate, it must connect with the real motivations of a business and reflect the core competencies that give the organization power. In this way, purpose can be a powerful driver of brand growth over time, which is the ultimate objective for any business (and the issue that keeps brand owners up at night).

One of the top growing Best Global Brands in 2016 was Facebook, with an impressive brand value growth of 48% YOY. Its purpose: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” has been activated throughout the business and has driven this impressive growth. Initiatives like or innovations for end-users like live streaming and the “I am safe” feature are just a few examples of how the purpose has contributed to shaping different aspects of the brand experience. Last but not least, Facebook’s ten-year business strategy is built exclusively on ecosystems, products, and technologies that drive increased connectivity. Importantly, Facebook is keeping an eye on how its purpose performs with a clear set of KPIs. In August 2015, the company announced the incredible milestone of one billion people connected to social media and YOY comparison between Q2 2015 and Q2 2016 shows 15% growth of monthly active users, 19.8% growth of mobile monthly active users, 59% total revenue growth and an impressive 94% Earnings Per Share growth.

Put simply, to achieve growth, brands must be single-minded and have clarity about their capabilities (i.e. what they have to offer), have a deep rooted understanding of the needs of their customers (i.e. why they offer it) and how they will stand out in the competitive context in which they operate (i.e. how they are distinct).

Take Deliveroo, an Interbrand Breakthrough Brand founded in London in 2013 with a clear purpose to connect consumers to higher-end restaurants that don’t typically offer takeaway or deliver food. The brand’s capabilities are clear. Their technology, logistics, and riders service both restaurants and end users. Furthermore, the brand was founded on a deep understanding of their customers’ needs for high-quality food, and it is clearly differentiated as no one else was offering this service. It’s been a recipe for success, as Deliveroo have averaged 25% month-on-month growth over the last few years, and has expanded to over 60 cities, in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Dubai, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and the UK.

In other words, brands must be authentic, relevant, and differentiated. These brand fundamentals are proven and have stood the test of time. These dimensions have remained unchanged despite the latest brand buzzword, and will continue to ignite growth. But what is apparent is that the cultural context influencing these dimensions has evolved (and will continue to do so). As such, our considerations as we develop strategies for brand growth must evolve too.

Brands require a compelling promise to bring these strategies to life, to drive businesses from within. To engage, excite, and satisfy audiences, both internal and external, for the long term. Those brands that consistently deliver upon their promise and put their intentions into practice through business and brand strategy, will build and sustain their reputation and grow over time.

The brands that get this right can become powerful drivers of behavior because they connect with us on a deeply human level. Consequently, we identify with them because we believe that we’re getting greater value in return. This value can be individual, as in the case of Nike, whose purpose is “to unlock human potential and bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world” because they believe that “if you have a body, you are an athlete”. Or it can be collective, like Unilever, who are committed to “making sustainable living commonplace”. In both instances, these statements embody the reason these brands exist.

Whatever a brand’s reason for being, it must ensure that it is authentic to its business, relevant to its audiences and distinct in its marketplace. It must be embedded within their business and there must be a commitment to building capabilities, which in turn must be supported by clear KPIs so that they can deliver experiences, innovations, and initiatives to really live up to their promise.

So, let’s refocus on the essentials and avoid creating an unnecessary or insincere brand purpose at all costs. It’s not about brands practicing good; it’s simply about good brand practice.


Senior Consultant, Strategy
Senior Consultant, Strategy
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