Why brands struggle with ‘purpose’


This piece first appeared on CIM Exchange.

There’s only one thing more common than brands talking purpose these days, and that’s brands without one.

Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, made an impassioned call in The Guardian recently for brands to place purpose “at the core of the brand, driving everything it does”. But those of us who work with brands (or indeed, live with them) will know how far that ideal is from reality across the marketplace.

His piece gave us a clue as to why that might be. He advised that any brand thinking about this issue should simply go for it, saying “you won’t know exactly how it’s going to go at first, but don’t be scared to learn along the way”. Now I agree, that’s an admirable sentiment. But it’s not the kind of advice that security-minded marketing directors are likely to base their 2017 strategic thinking around. The truth is that authentic purpose remains nebulous, the kind of ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ magic reserved for Jobs-like visionaries rather than something a generic brand can simply buy.

A central reason for this is that true brand purpose tends to come from within, whilst most brands outsource their identity to agencies. Patagonia never had to hire a consultant to tell them who they are, and that’s why they get purpose; the average brand has no idea and their agencies can’t change that. This isn’t to say that agencies are incapable, it’s just that internal change is never part of their remit. And if it’s not internal and integral to the brand’s operations, then it’s not purpose.

So what can we do to change this?

We can’t rely on every brand to do it themselves, for every CMO to become a mini Steve Jobs, orienting their whole business around their vision. We have to come to a solution which works within the current paradigm of brands and agencies working together – where the output is not ads, but business change.

The way to do this is to speak the language of the industry and create a new discipline. This means identifying what, on a practical level, creates ‘purpose’, and then allowing this to be sold as a product like social or shopper marketing.

The ingredients of the discipline would be simple – brand identity manifested through internal company change, rather external campaigns. The creation of an interesting business, rather than interesting ads. It would need a name, as only then could it get traction in the market the way ‘social’ has over the last decade or so. I would suggest ‘basic’, implying the crucial truth of this approach: that it’s something fundamental – something that should be nailed before other types of marketing, not an afterthought.

This crucial service could spawn specialist agencies, budget lines, award categories, even trade bodies. In this world, a sound purpose could be as accessible to a brand as a Facebook page, only far more important for both the brand and the world around them.

Powerful voices like Keith Weed and others like him have the ability to align and create this new reality. Only then will purposeful brands become the norm, not the exception.

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