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Why people should stop trashing purpose brands

Alan Emmins & Ulrik Horten
September 2019
hello@androbin.dk

Purpose Brands

Earlier in the year we started to notice that posts with the sole purpose of bashing purpose brands started popping up in our LinkedIn feeds. As two people who can rant endlessly about the value of a purpose brand, Ulrik and I had a slight panic. What had we missed?

That first article wrote about the stupidity of brands ‘shopping’ for a purpose. It focused on a confectionary brand struggling with whether their purpose should be sustainability, corporate social responsibility or carbon neutrality. For us, sustainability, CSR and carbon neutrality are not purposes at all. We would argue that the first two are standard operating procedures and the third a noble but as yet unachieved aspiration. 

And so we relaxed a bit. The article offered no insights as to why the bubble had burst on purpose brands. Instead it highlighted, albeit accidentally, the inevitable return on laziness combined with assumption.

But then another post appeared focusing on why purpose brands are a bad investment to drive internal motivation. While we believe a strong purpose brand can do great things for internal motivation (if it’s authentic and outward serving), developing one purely to motivate internally seems to be missing the point by several miles. Surely that’s how you wind up thinking sustainability is a purpose?  

“67% of millennials don’t trust brands, so clearly purpose brands don’t work”

Just this week we heard somebody say that, “67% of millennials don’t trust brands, so clearly purpose brands don’t work.” But couldn’t the same statistic point to a fundamental lack of purpose? Or that too many brand purposes are inauthentic, off the shelf solutions that when examined are not actually purposes at all? Trashing purpose brands just to sell the next marketing trend is flawed and lazy. It’s not the concept of purpose brands that’s the problem, it’s a poor understanding of what they are and what they should be used for. The problem is poor execution.

There are two common errors that seem to be giving purpose brands a bad rap:

A fundamental misunderstanding of what a purpose is, often as a result of not understanding who the purpose serves.

A continual overstepping of ‘own role’, which tends to lead to inauthentic purposes that can’t be owned or delivered on.

At &Robin, we believe brand purpose is inseparable from the impact you have and wish to have on the lives of the people you serve with your business or products, meaning the actual role of the company. In this way, the purpose is always tethered to the core of your business, clearly present in the decisions and actions your brand takes, and its impact can be measured. It’s believable, achievable and aspirational. 

Understanding one’s own role is critical to whether or not a purpose is authentic, ownable and ultimately, once established, able to serve the business. Basic value communication principles dictate that companies talk about their big picture value. That’s right to a point, but it requires humility, because the outcome of the outcome of the outcome is more often than not too far removed from a company’s ‘own role’.

Embrace your enabler role

While doing competitor research for a client, we came across several IT solution providers in the solar industry whose ‘purpose’ was to deliver clean energy to the world. In reality they are not capable of delivering clean energy to the house next door, but then nor are they actually trying to. Their product is an IT solution and while that solution assists those who do deliver clean energy to do it better and more efficiently, they are still an enabler and not a deliverer. Their purpose is therefore unbelievable and confusing. A wind farm in need of their IT solution could easily look at their purpose and mistake them, as deliverers of clean energy to the world, for a competitor.

Pharma companies who lead with the passive and largely unbelievable claim that ‘patients are at the centre of everything we do’ are missing out on a massive opportunity, because they are just one step away from a truly authentic, powerful purpose. By stepping back from the 'hero role' and instead embracing their 'enabler role', the very same purpose takes on more power, and includes stakeholders who are key to the business, and to the quality of care and treatment a patient receives. If the purpose was to maximize the patient centricity of all who treat and care for patients, the definition of what a product is would change for the better. Pharma companies would go all in on disease management, in which their traditional products, treatments, would obviously play the key role in a range of services that would truly go 'beyond the pill'. With some simple actions put up against it, that purpose would set direction and redefine a pharma company's value to payers, HCPs and patients. It would enable them to enter into more valuable partnerships that are hard for them to access today. It would change how people perceive their company and could begin to address the industry-wide trust issues that have plagued pharma for decades.

Maybe confection brands should be free to just focus on great tasting sweets, and if they do have a strong commitment to sustainability maybe it is okay for them to wear it on their sleeves. But let’s not mistake that as a purpose and start using it as an example of why purpose brands are just marketing fluff. Sustainability is not a purpose any more than CSR or equality are. Such things are commitments at best, and maybe for consumer brands selling luxurie goods that's as far down that road as they can or should go.

But in B2B real purpose isn’t as hard to find, because companies, products and services tend to be addressing clearly identified needs of clearly defined customers. By accepting and understanding their own enabler role, B2B companies often find they’re a lot closer to a clear and authentic purpose that drives business and perception than they thought they were. Sure, it might be humbler than the ambition set out in the brief, but for that very reason it will resonate better with target audiences, set a stronger course and serve the company long into the future.

The fact that we called our agency &Robin tells you that we are massive fans of the enabler role. We believe it can be harnessed for good and be activated as a powerful purpose that quickly delivers competitive edge and lasting loyalty.

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