A long-term promise not a short term fix.

July 13, 2021
Simon Callender
Creative Planning Director

Brand purpose has become one of the hottest topics in today’s marketing world, but is all this focus and hype justified?

Today’s consumers are more ethically and socially conscious than ever before. From our own research, we found that nearly half of shoppers (46%) “only shop with brands that have a wider societal purpose” or are “always seeking ethical alternatives to existing brands”.

It’s within the context of these social shifts that brands have tried to mirror changes in consumer attitude and behaviour. While early pioneers such as Patagonia and Nike helped establish the contemporary brand purpose mantle, you’d be hard pressed to find any company today that hasn’t experimented with the concept, often under the illusion that it can be the cure for many brand ills.

But consumers are growing weary. Shoppers increasingly faced with the à la mode ubiquity of purpose related campaigns have started to question whether brands are really being genuine with their sentiments or not.

This suspicion is cemented by compelling evidence. Our research shows just 9% of shoppers trust a brand when it says it has a deeper purpose.

So we need to take a step back and look at the situation objectively. In doing so, we may just find that brand purpose isn’t the miracle panacea for brands that lack consumer connection – here’s why.


What does ‘brand purpose’ really mean?

The term “brand purpose” carries with it a string of preconceptions, ideas and judgments.

For many, brand purpose has become synonymous with “doing good”, which, like sustainability, is now a catch-all phrase that loosely categorises any humanitarian, philanthropic or charitable business objective under the same banner. However, at its most basic, brand purpose is a promise to actively pursue change in the wider world – how brands choose to purpose that pledge is up to them. That call for change needs to be meaningful and relevant to a chosen target market and vitally needs to be backed up by doing.

Kresse Wesling, Co-Founder at sustainable luxury brand, Elvis & Kresse, comments, “Brand purpose means nothing to me because it’s just a term – the actions are what is important. We’re an action-oriented company, and I’m very worried about purpose becoming a catch-all term that loses all value.”

A true brand purpose shouldn’t be another messaging coat that can be slipped over the existing brand architecture – it’s an action-oriented strategy that can only be achieved and have true credibility when it creates real change that people value.

Dee Bulsara, Managing Director at OceanSaver the Eco Cleaning brand, comments on this idea, saying, “For us it’s very simple. If we don’t live by our purpose, then we don’t have a brand. Our purpose is to leave the planet a better place than we found it, which [we bring to life] through sustainability initiatives measured by our ecological and carbon footprint.”

It’s through action and impact that brand purpose moves from a boardroom strategy to something that lives in the real world and which can create a measurable and meaningful effect in people’s lives. It’s the end result that consumers need to witness not just the sentiment. If a brand lacks the commitment and resources to create this change then brand purpose becomes an unfulfilled, hollow wish that will fade into marketing noise, generating more of the consumer disillusionment that our research points to.

The majority of consumers agree that brand purpose is something that should have a real tangible impact on people and communities (not just something a brand feels they can add a ‘like’ to). Furthermore, 55% of consumers say buying purpose brands “inspires me to work harder for that cause” and “encourages me to find out what I can do to help.”

Worryingly however, a third of shoppers say that buying from a purpose brand “makes me feel I’ve done my bit for that cause”, which highlights why brands must deliver on their promises if we want to avoid a net negative impact on the issue at hand

Finding an authentic purpose that brands can service in the real world is not something every organisation can or should do. As we’ll see, there must be room for permission and space to drive impact.


Why brand purpose isn’t a tool for everyone

Purpose is the ultimate proof point of a brand’s commitment to its own values and beliefs. As such, a brand purpose campaign should only reflect the values that already underpin that brand. If these values lack relevance, then a brand purpose campaign will only amplify this disconnect.

This dissonance is partly to explain why issues like greenwashing have become so prevalent in the consumer psyche. An Accenture study of more than 30,000 consumers worldwide found that more than half (53%) of consumers who are disappointed with a brand’s words or actions on social issues complain about it. Even more troubling, 47% now walk away from a brand in frustration and 17% never come back.

With access to more information than ever before, consumers have become particularly adept at spotting false attempts to retroactively assign “purpose” to a brand. This is especially true when a brand has not invested its time, energy or money into living its purpose in the real world.

OceanSaver’s Dee Bulsara, says, “There’s so much disingenuous eco talk out there from brands that don’t have a sense of purpose. Going forward, consumers will have a real tough job trying to figure out what is eco and what isn’t.”

In order to make purpose work, brands need to have the values and permission to back it up. It requires ambition and dedication to see these values through – both in the business and in the world at large.

As Kresse Wesling notes, “If all of your actions don’t match all of your intentions, then I think you have a problem.”

At Initials, we walk our clients through a three-step process to evaluate brand purpose and determine whether it fits authentically with a brand’s values.

Step 1. Ambition – First, we assess what a brand’s real ambition is by analysing commercial objectives vs brand perception. What is the time frame being discussed? Is the brand committed to addressing an issue for the long term? Are the objectives aligned with the means?

Step 2. Permission – Next, we need to determine whether or not a brand has permission to speak on a particular subject. What values does the brand have or seek that it wants to activate? How do these values connect with consumers? Are they distinctive? Do consumers care? Does a brand purpose programme fit with the brand’s archetypes and personality?

Step 3. Resource – Finally, brands need to take an objective look at their own commitment to a purpose – both from a resourcing and financing point of view. Do the human and financial resources available allow you to address this purpose in a meaningful way? Can you deliver against consumer expectations?


A long-term vision, not a short-term solution

Too often, brands see purpose as a fix for short-term commercial performance. This is where companies get themselves into trouble.

Brand purpose demands consistency, as it elevates a brand’s beliefs into the public realm. Unlike other activations, it needs to be managed for the long-term, not the short-term.

Our research shows that 89% of consumers would pay a premium for a brand that has an authentic purpose. In fact, 1 in 3 consumers would pay a premium of 35% or more for a brand that demonstrates a genuine purpose.

This direct link between brand purpose and increased expenditure perhaps explains why so many brands are desperate to leverage the power of purpose. But as we’ve seen, there’s an incredible amount of distrust and skepticism in the market, given that less than 1 in 10 shoppers trust a brand when it says it has a deeper purpose.

So, how can we make sense of all this?

Well, a short-term attempt to leverage brand purpose is likely to do more harm than good. Consumers will see straight through this and question a brand’s motives and intentions.

As OceanSaver’s Dee Bulsara says, “We still believe that what we’re doing is for the long-term health of the planet and the oceans – It’s not a choice, it’s a “must”. People are starting to switch on, but it’s going to take time.”

Purpose is a long-term solution. It’s a north-star by which values can be applied to culture in a socially relevant context over the course of decades – not months.

As Kresse Wesling concludes, “Our purpose is about a future where we don’t have extractive or exploitative businesses. In this future, every business should have purpose as part of its DNA.”

When authenticity and impact are placed before profit and perception, then true brand purpose has a real chance to shine.

As seen in The Drum