Does every brand need a purpose?

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Gold Blend coffee has a new campaign. You’ll know if you live in any remotely built up part of the UK because the media buy is impressive.

And it has to be said that it has caused a bit of a stir in the planning community. Now I accept that a bunch of North London intellectuals whining about a piece of work is not the worst thing that can happen to a campaign. But the debate is interesting nonetheless and it has led me to question whether every brand actually needs a purpose.

For those of you who are not familiar with the work, the ads are about Gold Blend’s new purpose and that is to help families to spend time together. The debate surrounds the question of why the brand has credibility in pursuing this purpose. The questioning is not of the quality of the ads is about the credibility of the strategy.

So is this just a case of a strategy that feels a little hollow or is it part of a wider issue? These days every brand seems to want a purpose regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of brand purpose as the next planner. I was an early advocate of this approach and a firm supporter of the early manifestations of brand purpose like Nike’s ‘just do it’, Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’ and Lurpak’s ‘good food deserves Lurpak’. Each of these is now very well established and very successful, indeed it’s weird to think that while the Lurpak campaign is now a decade old and the others are even older.

Nike, Dove and Lurpak were trailblazers for a purpose led approach and in doing so fought against the orthodoxy of the day to deliver something powerful and fresh for their client and brand. But it is perhaps the rarity of the approach that made those campaigns so good. It took real talent and conviction to nurse these ideas out of their agencies and through the client organisation at a time when there were no TED talks by Simon Sinek to play to the CMO.

In fact the idea that purpose is not simply one way of creating brand strategy, it is the only approach can be traced back to Mr Sinek and his concentric circles labeled what, how and why? Although I was first excited by the idea following the publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999 with its warning that ‘people are no longer interested in your positioning, they want to know your position’.

The positive business and marketing environment now makes it easy-peasy to sell a purpose led approach to the client and through the client organisation because the trail blazers blazed the trail and now it’s supremely easy to follow. And so everybody does, regardless of whether it’s a remotely good idea or not.

It’s very clear that people sometimes do look to brands to help make their lives a little better beyond the functionality and values of the brand. But sometimes they just want a great cup of coffee or a decent beer.

Indeed while some of the great purpose trailblazers were FMCG brands I suspect that it is primarily organisations and service brands that not only deserve but need a sense of purpose. So let’s say purpose is pretty damn essential for service brands and FMCG brand owners but let’s be a little more cautious outside this group. And remember there are many other fantastic strategies beyond the purpose approach for you to get stuck into.

Brands may have a purpose but they can equally simply have a point of view on something important and close to them. An opinion in other words. The Body Shop believed that animal testing was wrong and most probably still does. That doesn’t mean to say that the purpose of the Body Shop was solely to put an end to animal testing just that it was one issue that is very close to a cosmetics brand that they had a strong opinion about.

Brands may also want to undertake acts. Kenco has a fantastic approach at the moment in which they are campaigning to encourage people out of gangs and into the coffee industry. Again this is not Kenco’s purpose but it is something that they have a strong belief in and in which they have a very credible voice. This is an ‘act’ as the people at Leo Burnett would say.

And finally brands may simply decide that they have a role. This is the classic planner’s tool and still immensely powerful. A brand’s role is simply the motivating and credible part that it seeks to play in people’s lives. I have a Dyson vacuum cleaner, all I want is for it to clean my home brilliantly and it does, brilliantly.

My issue is not that brand purpose is an illegitimate strategic tool, far from it. Indeed I am currently working on a number of purposing projects. But that it is not the only or the ultimate strategic tool. Maybe Simon Sinek is wrong and sometimes people don’t give a damn why you do what you do, just how you do it or perhaps actually what it is you do.

Brand purpose has served us well, let’s not destroy it by insisting that every brand has one regardless of whether this is a good idea or whether there are other more potent ways to get people to buy your product.

Image courtesy of Seth Sawyers

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13 Replies to “Does every brand need a purpose?”

  1. Great article.

    I agree, it’s not the purpose that’s the problem – a business without a purpose has no reason to exist. It’s just everyone tries to have such lofty reasons for existence. It’s mere brand status anxiety, and I think punters sense this and it comes across more than a bit disingenuous.

  2. Phil Adams made a point at Firestarters last night that great strategy is both prosaic and profound. Great purposes are similarly prosaic (in other words simply expressed and fundamental) and profound

  3. Purposes are great (and important). When they truly drive a business, they make the world a better place, and differentiate brands in categories where commoditisation is a problem. And for a growing number of consumers, this does factor into their decision making.

    Isn’t the point that a Purpose shouldn’t just be marketing tool, but a deep seated belief that drives the total business? Brand Purposes require business to act, not just talk about their belief in their Communications. It’s when brand purposes are lip service, talked about through communications (and possibly no other part of the business) that it is a problem.

  4. Very few commercial brands have purposes that can be described as ‘worthy’. Penguin Books, Body Shop, IKEA, Mutuals and ummm. Many more household names are thoroughly capitalist. They evade tax and screw their suppliers. And many treat their low paid workers appallingly. Humbug.

  5. Great thoughts and perspective Simon. I believe that one the appeals of using a brand purpose is that it is “easy”for an inexperienced strategist to use while making everyone feel good about the strategy (who wouldn’t agree that they’d love to contribute to making the world a better place, even gun manufacturers do). As a result every single communication agency in the US, from the smallest promotion agency to the largest PR, now claim to first develop a brand purpose for their clients. In our own research we’ve actually identified that a brand purpose approach is actually only one of 26 possible approaches to developing a strong strategic platform (

  6. I’m pro-purpose but anti-worthy.

    I am a big fan of a strong brand purpose and in fact did a lot of purpose-related stuff a few years ago at Ogilvy. And I find clients still have a lot of appetite for a good one.

    But that doesn’t mean it automatically becomes the communication strategy or the brief. If there’s a brand in a market that’s built on a strong purpose, there might be smarter ways to compete than to simply try and out-purpose them.

    And it’s tempting to let a purpose lead to a purposey tone of voice, which can get really tiring. Having an interesting voice is arguably at least as important as having an interesting message, and purposey can get a bit predictable and worthy.

    Also, lots of evidence shows that people don’t like to think too hard about most purchase decisions which means that you don’t always need to bang on about purpose. As noted above, sometimes you don’t need an ode to the values of cleanliness, you just need to get a curry stain off your shirt.

    That said, it’s good nowadays when you can draw some kind of line between what the CEO says, what the employees believe, and what’s out there in public, and a strong purpose helps with that. And I do believe that it can still sometimes be a platform for really powerful communication. It’s certainly a good question to ask.

  7. The litmus test for me when brands start talking about purpose is to visit their website. If the ‘purpose’ that provides the foundation for the ad extends through CSR or content or commitments on the website then you have the beginnings of the purpose.

    If the brand purpose of Nescafe Gold Blend is to re-connect families then you would expect that to be supported with all sort of employee, philanthropic and customer focused campaigns that deliver that outcome e.g. flexible working practices for all employees to allow parents to be at home for those moments.

    If those things aren’t in place, then there is no purpose and its just a campaign seeking to create an emotional connection. We’re still much more likely to see brands acting in the latter way rather than a genuinely purposeful way and that I feel is a lost opportunity and a risk.

  8. I think the purpose thing can easily lead to an internal conversation where everyone vastly overstates the importance of their brand in people’s lives; and vastly overstates the importance that purchases of the brand’s category play in in people’s lives too.

    Of course internal conversations habitually do that without a turbo-booster like “brand purpose” to help, and it’s part of the planner’s job to remind everyone on the team just how little almost all category buyers actually care.

    What matters is being distinctive, standing out and being the brand people think about first when people are buying or using the category – mental availability.

    If you use the analogue of your friends and acquaintances and whom you turn to in various situations – for an arm round your shoulders, for advice on money or on buying a new car, to help you fix a tap or move some heavy furniture etc etc then you will also probably call the friend you think of first in that situation too.

    Sometimes the friend will just be very good at that sort of thing, sometimes they did something related to your need that really stuck in your mind, sometimes you know it’s something they have a strong view about, sometimes it is what they eat, sleep and breathe (their calling or purpose if you will).

    All of these work. But all that matters in terms of your behaviour is who your think of first when you have the need.

  9. Does brand purpose support brands with an extra dimension. Yes. Does every brand need a purpose. No. Daniel stated above, if you scratch the surface and the purpose falls away. Then was it ever really the purpose to begin with? We’ve all heard the term “Greenwashing” for years, perhaps the new “norm” is “purposewashing”? As you rightly say, can’t we just see a business with a great differentiated product or process just exist to be a business?
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