Building brands with purpose: a new era for brands, but the old rules still matter

The increased role of brands in public life provides a potential win for them and society – if approached with the fundamentals of brand building in mind.
13 April 2021
Adele Jolliffe

Head of Brand Domain Consultant Team, Insights Division, UK

eleanor lloyd malcolm
Lloyd Malcolm

Head of Brand, Consulting Division

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It doesn’t feel like it should be that difficult to make a positive case for brand purpose, does it? Whether you’re Larry Fink realising that capitalism needs a structure to service a wider group of stakeholders, or whether you’re Unilever with 40%+ growth to show for what can happen when you go beyond the functionalities of your products, the opportunity for brands and business to do well for themselves and others feels like a breakthrough of common sense.

Certainly, analysis from BrandZ, the world’s largest brand equity database, would concur. Over a twelve-year period, brands recognised by people for a purpose beyond profit grew more than twice as fast. Last year after British brands continued to lag behind the growth rate of the Global Top 100, building brands more responsibly was one of the four opportunity areas identified for them to focus on.

Yet there is concern about brand purpose being just a well-intentioned distraction that negates the very thing marketing is here to do: help businesses grow.

What if we were to ask a different question? Not why to do brand purpose, but how to do brand purpose?

The truth is that the secrets of powerful, effective purpose are hidden in plain sight in the enduring fundamentals of brand building. We just need to look at them slightly differently.

Don’t get distracted by the unhelpful evidence

You don’t need to search far for commentary about how people (especially younger people) now have purpose high up their agendas especially since the pandemic. Around every corner is an established industry thinker saying that purpose is now a deal-breaker for consumers, and that they will reject brands and products that do not align with their values.

Looking a little deeper, the subtext here is that a conscious assessment of values will be the defining influence on a person’s choice of brand, and so brand managers had better be getting their purpose strategies in order to avoid risking the loss of customers and revenues to more purposeful competitors.

The danger for brand owners is to let that derail the fundamentals of brand building: to think that the associations built around purpose will create an advantage for your brand that works any differently to the other impressions, memories and experiences that shape your brand’s chances of being the preferred brand in a decision moment.

In fact, good purpose practise is just another way of framing the fundamentals of how brands create advantage and the best chance of being chosen at point of purchase.

It’s not that people are lying about their intentions, but that it’s only half of the story

Of course, in the abstract, people are being truthful when they say they intend to reject brands that don’t align with their values. The same way I’m truthful when I say I intend to go for a run every morning before work because I want to get fit. In reality, however, tomorrow morning I may very well make a different choice, and that decision will be determined by context and emotion, not necessarily by logic and good intentions.

This ‘value-action gap’ (the gap between our value-based intentions and behaviour) is long established by behavioural scientists and there is evidence of it in the marketing world at large. 

At the same time, there’s plentiful evidence that brand purpose does indeed drive better outcomes for brands. If that’s not because people are consciously considering their values and behaving accordingly, why is it?

The biggest opportunity for brand purpose is for it to create holistic advantage for a brand in a decision moment

Ultimately, preference for your brand will be leveraged in a decision moment. According to more advanced analyses of decision-making, system 1 (fast, intuitive) and system 2 (slower, conscious) processes are both at play in any decision. Brand purpose is part of the tapestry of impressions, beliefs, associations and experiences which give your brand advantage in response to a need or an occasion: both when system one is responding with an intuitive first choice and when system two is confirming or derailing that system one preference. If your brand purpose is irrelevant to the underlying motivators of choice within those needs or occasions, it won’t affect a choice in your favour.

At its most effective, therefore, brand purpose is a seamless layer of your brand’s mental imprint, enhancing how meaningful, different and salient your brand is to people which is ultimately what creates competitive advantage in the moment and unlocks more sustainable growth.

Brands can adopt four principles for success

Impact is different from intent when it comes to brand purpose. The brands in the BrandZ database that enjoy higher value and faster growth as a result of brand purpose are recognised for their efforts to go beyond just the pursuit of profit to make people’s lives better. It’s this recognition of efforts that is conditional to purpose positively affecting your brand.

So how can this be achieved? There are four principles for success:

1. Build from your core

If you ensure that your purpose is right for your category and your brand, it can become a seamless layer of the positive and motivating associations that make up a brand’s mental imprint. Consider the difference between a personal care brand taking on the confines of female beauty, and a beverage brand attempting to tackle racial tensions. The alignment between your brand, and possibly even your category, to your choice of purpose can make or break it.

2. Be meaningfully different

Brands that are meaningfully different sell more, can charge more and are of higher value, so it’s essential that your brand purpose helps support that. Explore cultural tensions to find the right topic to tackle. The gap between how the world could be and what it is today is fruitful ground for tangible, relevant ways your brand can have impact and make people’s lives better. Ensuring this is easily connected to your products and services adds extra power. Once you’ve identified the relevant area of purpose and the tension, ensure the tonality of execution is shaped to align with and reinforce your brand’s DNA, so that your purpose serves to build your brand’s meaningful difference, not dilute it. A great example is how Always exposed the double standards about ‘what girls are told they can achieve’ vs the ‘implicit assumptions’ about their limitations.

3. Mobilise your people

Your employees are the first ones to be engaged with your purpose and, if successful, will create enhanced business performance as shown in the Purpose 2020 study: 80% of over-performing businesses said “Everything we do is linked to a clear Brand Purpose” compared to under-performing businesses where this score was only 32%. The key to success is solid change management: not just getting your employees to get it and love in the short term but enabling them to live it in their everyday work. At NatWest, for example, the purpose ambition to ‘champion potential, helping people, families and businesses to thrive’ permeates through the employee network to customers through initiatives including helping over 600,000 people save and almost three million people improve their financial stability, and deploying £1bn in debt funding to support female entrepreneurs.

4. Execute through action and experience

Just like any part of your brand’s mental imprint, your purpose should be delivered consistently across every touchpoint along the brand journey in a relevant way. IKEA have brought their ‘Creating a better life for the many people’ to life from their stores and digital eco-systems to their production value chain and business leadership. Adopting this kind of coherence and consistency means your purpose will concentrate your brand’s meaningful difference, not risk diluting it.

Your brand’s purpose should be the obvious choice for your brand, given what it does, who it is and what’s happening in the world right now. In this way, you’re adding complementary layers to the mental imprint of your brand and, in turn, making it more meaningful, different, and salient when it counts.

Furthermore, the synergy between brand and purpose is crucial not just to brand success but to the very impact that it is trying to be made. A purpose that is not aligned to the brand and does not speak to a real need or tension will simply go unnoticed or even attract ridicule. In short, nobody wins.

At first glance that can sound like simple common sense, but it is of course layered, complex and littered with potential pitfalls. To help, this year we’ll be providing ideas and inspiration on the topic of purpose including our recent 2021 Digital Performance Summit, which you can watch on demand:

Session 1: Connecting Purpose to People

Session 2: Predicting the future is hard – here’s how to do it better

Session 3: How to sleep better at night: Improve clarity, transparency, and excellence in digital performance for you, your teams, and your agencies

Panel Discussion : A client perspective on making digital data work for your business


Find out about how we can help you decide on an execute a best-in-class brand purpose, or fill in your details below to get our PDF on Overcoming Purpose Paralysis.

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