Purposeful brands must set the agenda not just reflect it

According to a study by BBMG and Globescan of 21,000 consumers, 40% said they want purposeful brands but when questioned, they could not spontaneously name a single one, writes BBD Perfect Storm's chief executive.

I fear for purpose. Not in the personal sense. A life without purpose is no life at all – unless you’re a Kardashian that is. No, I fear for purpose in the brand sense and perhaps more specifically in how we marketers are using it.

For some time now finding a brand’s purpose has been the holy grail for many marketers, and for good reason. At a time when brands in most product categories are increasingly seen as the same, when trust in them is close to an all-time low and ambivalence towards them rising by the day, brand purpose has become the universal way-through and the go-to strategy for any ambitious marketer.

In "purpose" we should find our brand’s difference, the glue that binds our organisation together, and once more connects us with our customers in a sustainable and profitable way.

At Cannes this year, Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, talked about the importance of brands taking on the difficult issues that can have a positive effect on the world we live in.

In 'purpose' we should find our brand’s difference, the glue that binds our organisation together, and once more connects us with our customers in a sustainable and profitable way.

Customers are looking for brands to do this. According to a study by BBMG and Globescan of 21,000 consumers, 40% said they want purposeful brands. But the irony is, when the consumers were questioned, they could not spontaneously name a single one.

So, clearly brands that are currently trying to align themselves with a distinct social purpose are largely failing to do so. This represents a huge opportunity for those that get it right.

So, why are brands not getting through? At Cannes the focus was on brand purpose in execution rather than simply in principle – the "how' rather than the "what". And this is indicative of the wider problem. There’s too much talk and not enough action  grandiose statements of intent, however well meaning, have not translated into action.

However, my fear comes from the potential exploitation of purpose – when purpose serves the bottom line, not the people. Commercial-serving rather than people-serving purpose is marketing lipstick on a pig.

Purpose is not something you can fudge and it’s not something you can dip your toe into, or jump on the bandwagon of, simply to be seen to be doing something good. That does not restore brand meaningfulness.

Purpose is something you lead. It means setting the cultural agenda, not just reflecting it and deciding what you stand for and, more importantly, what you stand against, and then doing something about it.

We can all have purpose but only pioneers are prepared to tackle the risky social issues that others shy away from. It means being true, brave and unrelenting and deeds beyond words, not just for a moment in time but as part of a long-term programme of commitment.

Purpose is something you lead. It means setting the cultural agenda, not just reflecting it and deciding what you stand for.

Get it right and the rewards will be plentiful. Once more people will care about your brand, they will see it as distinctive and meaningful because it (and you) have made a difference. However, get it wrong, as many of us do, and it simply serves to undermine brands and marketing further.

At best we will be ignored, at worst we will be slated and and more backs will be turned upon us. To get it right and to become a purposeful pioneer you should choose a social issue, big or small, and truly go about addressing it.

Of course it must be viewed through your brand’s lens of legitimacy and authenticity. But then, lead the charge, engage partners, become the agenda, and redefine culture. This industry, and the world around us, really needs it.

Jason Foo is the chief executive officer at BBD Perfect Storm

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