Would the real brand purpose please stand up?
Brand Purpose isn’t dying, you’re just doing it wrong.
It’s eight years ago that Simon Sinek managed to codify the difference between successful brands and significant ones, in his book Start With Why. In fact, his TED talk with the same title appeared on YouTube during the first week of Manifest’s existence. Sitting there at my kitchen table, with just a second-hand laptop and a blank page where my to-do list should be, it was a moment of clarity. Not only was he articulating the approach I wanted our agency to take to branding, but he helped me explain why I was sitting there in the first place. I wanted to build an agency with purpose. Whereas other people were telling me it was too risky to start a business in the middle of a recession, I genuinely believed I had no other option.
Now that brand purpose is well and truly seated at the heart of the mainstream branding world, the pages of Start With Why are well worn, but have never been more misunderstood. There’s a groundswell of opinion that the era of brand purpose is over. ‘They’ say that people are bored of it. And I get it. Pepsi, Heineken and McDonald’s all tried what they called ‘brand purpose’ campaigns recently and they all died on their arse. But by blaming a fickle audience, we’re missing some key observations – firstly, these were not ‘brand purpose’ campaigns because none of them had any authenticity, and secondly, they were all unspeakably shit. Strategically, creatively and conceptually awful.
The audiences of these brands aren’t bored of purpose, they’re bored of being lied to about it. They’re bored of purpose being misinterpreted as some kind of bolt-on altruism upgrade.
These campaigns thought you could spray on social relevance like fake tan, but there’s no quick fix. And big network agencies or in-house comms teams at global conglomerates don’t like things that are hard. Unfortunately for them, building a brand around a purpose is a bit more complicated than adding ✌🏽 to your tweets.
To make my point, I think it’s important we define ‘purpose’. Somehow the common definition seems to be that brands have some sort of tangential altruism added, like a special ingredient. Obviously, not all brands have a ‘social good’ as their natural true north. In reality, a brand purpose does not need to ‘give back’ or have a charity element – it just needs to be a core belief that people can share. It has to be authentic or it’s not a purpose at all, it’s just a hollow gimmick. Brands established around a market opportunity, a demographic or a profit margin, struggle to find a core purpose because they can’t unshackle themselves from being defined by what they do (make it rain), instead of why they do it. That means that brand purpose isn’t for everyone, I guess – but if you don’t have one, you are going to struggle as the Purpose Economy continues to evolve.
It used to be enough for a brand to say they stand for something, but the nuanced difference for purpose-driven brands is that they stand up for something.
Brands that don’t have a cause just aren’t compelling in a world where people buy experiences rather than commodities. Social currency no longer lies in what car you’re driving, but where you’re driving it to and who’s coming with you. It’s not about the specification anymore, it’s about the story you can tell with it.
So, your brand doesn’t necessarily need to be noble, sustainable or philanthropic. It just has to judge its success by how it’s improving the lives of its customers. It needs a cause people can join that is born from why the business is there in the first place. With this mindset, you’re no longer selling a product or service, you’re starting a movement. As Sinek says, “There’s a reason it was ‘I have a dream’ and not ‘I have a plan’.”
Look at the brands with the most committed brand communities across any sector – Tesla, Nike, BrewDog, MailChimp (I could go on) – they all have a dream shared by their customers. They are all brands with an intrinsic value born from passion and personality. They are all leading their industries and blowing things up. The brands that look shaky right now are the ones with a proposition, instead of that passion.
According to the author of The Purpose Economy, Aaron Hurst, “CEOs expect demand for purpose in the consumer marketplace to increase by nearly 300% by 2020. This demand means consumers put less emphasis on cost, convenience, and function and increasingly make decisions based on their need to increase meaning in their lives, and buy products and services that fulfil that need.”
So, it seems those predicting the end for brand purpose are right, if they are talking about a kind of brand purpose defined by peace emoji, charity donations and brand films cheesier than a bag of Wotsits.
Brand purpose is dead, long live brand purpose.
At Manifest, we work with a broad gamut of brands from across the globe – sex toys, craft beer, big data, bike sharing, video games, sportswear, fintech, autonomous vehicles, the lot. And all of them flourish because they have purpose. And that’s what allows us to be so creative. Helping these organisations change the world for the better is what gets us up in the morning. It means we have a responsibility to get it right. It means we believe in what we do. It means we have a purpose of our own. And it’s why PR is becoming a principle driver of commercial success.
Long story short: brand purpose is in rude health. It’s the big businesses trying to shortcut it that are dying. So put the Pepsi down, officer. Place your hands above your head, and walk away.