How can brands discover their purpose?

(Photo courtesy  Mr.TinDC via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Mr.TinDC via Flickr)

Campaign asked industry pros how greater transparency helps brands do good when doing business

As the Internet enables consumers to make more enlightened purchase decisions — and social media gives them an easy way to talk back — brands today have to operate in a much more transparent business environment.

This means that doing business and doing good can no longer be mutually exclusive. Of course, brands lending their time, money and resources to social initiatives and causes is nothing new. But corporate social responsibility (CSR) as we know it has evolved in recent years, with many brands seeing this responsibility as more than a PR add-on to improve brand image. Rather, it is seen as something deeper — their raison d'être, a "brand purpose."

As TBWA’s Lee Clow recently wrote for Campaign US, we are entering "a time when purpose-based marketing and companies will overtake the ‘slow to change,’ offering new forms of audience connection we can’t get from purely old-fashioned, consumerist models.

"I believe we will see significant shifts in the DNA of brand-building," Clow wrote.

Despite the recognition from marketers that they are in a position to help realign business objectives to do good through brand-building, often these endeavors are met with skepticism by the general public.

When a brand puts its name to a cause there is always a risk that there will be backlash if it is seen as paying lip service rather than truly helping. This is particularly the case when the effort is undertaken by large organizations that place shareholder value at the top of the agenda.

So how can brands looking to discover and exercise their purpose  ensure that their communications are authentic, meaningful and do more than just acknowledge this social-good trend?

Trish Wheaton, president of Young & Rubicam Inspire, Y&R's sustainability marketing practice:

Trish Wheaton Y&R

Transparency is no longer an option. And, as author Don Tapscott says, "If we are all going to get naked, we’d better get buff." Enlightened companies, who understand the value of sustainability and social good to their consumers and for their brands, are not simply writing checks. They are actively building sustainability and good into their business models — and it’s making a difference to their bottom lines.

Our global research shows the socially conscious consumer segment—we call them "Generation World" — are ageless, borderless and multidimensional. Empowered by the digital and social landscape, these consumers do their homework and are not easily misled. They understand that transparency works both ways, too, and they actively want to know what brands are doing to make the world a better place. To quote from one Generation World interview, "We always find out about the bad (companies are doing), but we don’t hear about the good. If you do it, say it."

Tom Donovan, SVP, director of strategy, Mullen LA:

Tom Donovon

I think young people, especially Millennials, understand that the purpose of a purpose is to get you to buy the brand. And they don’t mind that as long as it’s done well. Brand purpose has moved beyond corporate social responsibility. It’s about giving people the story behind your brand, not just giving back.

When a purpose is authentic, it’s integral to what your brand already does. For instance, P&G and Unilever each have programs that use their brands to help people in need. They’re basically torture tests that prove their brands work better, while at the same time doing good. That’s the sweet spot because it’s meaningful to consumers.  

A brand also has to show that they’re truly committed to their purpose. Taking a stand on an issue can provoke a backlash, but you can’t back down or people will know that you didn’t really mean it in the first place. I thought Honey Maid did a great job standing up to critics of their "Wholesome" campaign. They didn’t back down, they doubled down with a response that was as smart as the original campaign. It really showed that they were committed to the brand’s purpose, not just in it for the money.

The other test of authenticity is commitment over time. Dove comes to mind here — they were the original brand with a purpose. And they’ve stuck with "Real Beauty" for over 10 years, evolving to stay at the forefront of the issues from "Evolution" to "Sketches."  In the process, they’ve established themselves as an authority — it shows that it’s not just a campaign for them.

Matt Springate, strategy director, Droga5:

The brands we most admire have a point of view about how the world should be.

When we talk about purpose — or why a brand exists beyond making money — it puts us in a position where we can come up with creative work that does something. We always ask ourselves, "What is the brand here to do?"

Too many confuse purpose with sponsoring a social-good initiative, or they attempt to ladder-up a functional benefit to a higher-order purpose, which ends up feeling shallow. For a purpose to be credible, it has to be rooted in a combination of truths about the brand (heritage and product benefit), the audience, or big shifts that are happening in culture (not just trends).

For example, on Honey Maid, we drew a parallel between the brand and modern-day families, recognizing that despite a lot of change over the years, what defined each of them as "wholesome" hadn’t changed.

Joe Corr, chief creative officer, School:


Brands are made up of people who are responsible to people. No brand that I’ve ever worked with wants to leave the world in a worse place. It’s easy to think of a corporation as a faceless entity, but in my experience it’s full of passionate people that care about the world and question their purpose within it.

We spend time with our clients identifying and articulating that motivating purpose that drives the business. We aren’t looking to bolt on a CSR initiative for PR. The leaders of a brand or organization are constantly looking for ways to motivate their internal workforce as well as connect with their customers. Finding and leveraging a brand’s purpose helps with both of those challenges. That purpose could be intrinsic to the founder’s vision, it could emerge from an operational practice or belief, or it could bubble up from the workforce. But it’s there to be found.

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