The power of purpose: What the hacked Clinton e-mails tell us about branding

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Thousands of emails leaked from the Clinton campaign reveal little about the Democratic presidential nominee's beliefs, writes chief global analyst at Kantar Millward Brown

The release by WikiLeaks of thousands of Clinton campaign hacked e-mails provides a timely reminder that purpose matters in both politics and branding. Apart from shedding light on specific issues, the e-mails portray a campaign that struggled to define what Clinton stood for in her bid to become the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. In the end, Clinton won the nomination but the campaign proved far more difficult than expected.

The importance of purpose in brand building has been the subject of debate since Jim Stengel’s book "Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World's Greatest Companies" championed ideals as a driver of growth and profit. Stengel identifies purpose as the power behind brands like Amazon, Apple, Dove, Fedex and Starbucks. His proposition was supported by analysis that quantified the value growth of purpose-led brands as being 400% higher than the average across ten years.

Since the book was published in 2011 that analysis has been challenged on the grounds that a few of the brands in the Stengel 50 later failed to sustain their exceptional growth trajectory and reverted to the norm. However, that argument totally ignores both the huge value created for the 10 or more years that these brands grew faster than their peers and also misinterprets the way in which purpose influences brand growth. Chipotle Mexican Grill’s sales have been hit hard by recent food safety issues but, before that, delivered best-in-class sales growth. Purpose is a multiplier of basic business performance, not a substitute for it. No matter how well intentioned a brand, failure to innovate and communicate successfully will leave it vulnerable to new competition.

This is precisely what the hacked e-mails reveal about the Clinton campaign. Little is revealed about what Clinton herself believed and far more about the team’s desperate attempt to position the campaign on key issues and ensure that the "message" was delivered appropriately.  In a review of the content of the hacked e-mails Amy Chozick and Nicholas Confessore writing in the New York Times stated, "But the new emails seem to underscore Mrs. Clinton’s public struggles in defining her politics and her reasons for wanting to become president."

By contrast, her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, made it very clear that he did not desire the presidency as an end in itself but as a means to change the way politics were practiced and make a positive difference in the lives of the less privileged. This sense of purpose enabled an otherwise little known candidate to come close to overturning what was otherwise seen as a done deal for Clinton.

Many voters were inspired by Sanders' campaign because it turned the spotlight back on ordinary people and away from politics as usual. However, the power of purpose rests as much in the way it motivates people working on a brand or campaign and aligns them around a common message. The hacked e-mails give the impression of a team debating and wordsmithing everything to do with the campaign from potential policy stances to what jokes Clinton might make on stage.

The strength of the Sanders campaign forced the Clinton campaign to clarify their position on key issues and better react to the populist mindset of many Democratic voters. With this in mind, perhaps it is a good thing for the Clinton campaign that they are now pitted against Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Sometimes all a brand needs to do to be successful is to take a stand against what it is not.

—Nigel Hollis is chief global analyst at Kantar Millward Brown.


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