Shining a light on purpose

How pineapple and politics can help us understand the quest for brand purpose

7 min read

Brand purpose_hero illo

In a memorable sketch from the famous BBC show The Two Ronnies, a customer goes into a hardware store asking for fork handles, but the shopkeeper hands him four candles instead.

Only after rounds of (well-timed) rephrasing does the shopkeeper understand the request. It’s a classic and timeless comedy ploy, and it’s funny because the viewer realises there is a misunderstanding long before the characters do.

Sometimes the discussions on brand purpose seem a bit like that fork handles sketch. Except the parties involved never realise that they are not talking about the same thing. Just like politics and pineapple on pizza, brand purpose has a clear divisive capability. Either you mock it and believe it’s a load of marketing fluff, or you are devoted to it and believe it will save us all in the long run. In our eagerness to voice an opinion about it, though, we often forget to define it. This means teams regularly end up at odds with each other, primarily because they have failed to agree whether they’re arguing about pineapple or politics. So, let’s start by illustrating why brand purpose is an interesting concept to discuss.

Increasingly customers expect brands to step up and take more responsibility in society.

Fifty-five per cent of customers believe brands have a more important role than our governments in creating a better future, which crucially puts a focus on action rather than attitude. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation; 181 CEOs signed the statement and committed to lead their organisations for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. It marked a historic break with shareholder primacy and is a strong indication that companies realise their responsibility towards society.

Consequently, CMOs are understanding their role (and potential impact) in this shift too. In a recently published survey by Gartner, 33 per cent of CMOs indicated brand strategy was the most vital marketing capability for the next 18 months. However, when executed correctly, a brand purpose is the best tool for keeping strategy on track, ensuring brands play a role in creating a better future that benefits all stakeholders.

Brand purpose_society illo

When it comes to defining a brand purpose, too often misconceptions cloud judgement to the point where these misconceptions can damage the concept itself.

Here are three points to provide some clarity in this respect.

It is not a line. Brand purpose means deploying a specific lens to your brand strategy, which is often summarised in one line. But that does not mean the line itself is the brand purpose; that should set the entire brand’s direction – internally and externally. Nike’s purpose “to move the world forward through the power of sport – breaking barriers and building community to change the game for all” is a brilliant line, but it’s only a purpose because every initiative from product development to community engagement and employee benefits brings that exact sentiment to life. It is owned by the organisation as a whole, not the marketing department or any other department.

It is not a campaign. In the wake of consumers asking for brands to step up and take responsibility, we’ve seen a surge in purpose campaigns. If you have a brand purpose, you should use it as a foundation for your communication. But communication is only a small part of building a brand and an even smaller part of a brand strategy. A brand purpose needs to be backed up with action across the organisation. So, if a campaign is all you’ve got, you’re probably closer to purpose-washing than to working seriously with brand purpose, and it’s something that consumers can see right through. As Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio summarise in their book The Laws of Brand Storytelling, “A brand is the sum of interactions (real and perceived) that a person has with a company across all touchpoints.”

It is not corporate social responsibility. Brand purpose is about making a positive impact although it is often translated as social responsibility – the greener, the better. While we strive for a future where every brand is committed to helping save the world, until we get there a positive impact can also be about something much closer to home. Like when IKEA is striving to create a better everyday life for the many or LEGO wants to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. What characterises both of these companies is that their purpose is felt universally, starting with the product. But what’s interesting to assess is while brand purpose is being mistaken for CSR strategies and tactics, CSR itself is evolving, losing the S because the responsibility of a corporation should not merely be social.

A brand purpose asks two fundamental questions:

  1. What is the brand’s raison d’être beyond financial gain?
  2. How does the brand positively contribute to the world?
Brand purpose_brand illo

A brand’s purpose is a long-term aspirational image of its desired position.

It provides a clear direction for how the brand should act to achieve that position and a guiding light for strategic decision making on an internal and external business level. The question is, how do you identify a brand purpose that manages to do all of that? One of the essential foundational virtues is to have the right balance between an inside-out and an outside-in view. This means identifying key insights across both external and internal variables. Externally, you want to identify what human need the brand is addressing and what makes a brand stand out in the category. Internally, you want to find out what you can own, taking your heritage and history into consideration and the long-term business goal. Answering these questions will help develop a brand purpose that is relevant, distinctive, credible and supports your long-term vision.

However, the key takeaway of this article is that it doesn’t stop there. The real work begins when you translate the brand purpose into tangible strategies and actions implemented across the organisation. A brand purpose is not truly valuable to a business until it sets the direction for everything, from customer service to supply chain management.

To make that happen, follow these steps to success:

  • Involve the senior leadership. A company’s brand purpose is instrumental to the business. It should be driven and supported by the entire senior leadership team, not just by the marketing or communications team.

  • Implement throughout the entire organisation. Involve the employees and key stakeholders to ensure it’s done in the most meaningful way and translates into tangible actions for each function.

  • Activate across all touchpoints and make sure that the purpose is backed up by beautiful storytelling – and more importantly – by proof and actions.

Now that we have aligned on a definition, we can go back to disagreeing about pineapple and politics. Although, really, who genuinely likes pineapple on pizza?

Illustrations by Nathalie Lees.

All opinions expressed throughout this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AKQA or its affiliates.

Written by

Miriam Plon Sauer, Executive Strategy Director, EMEA

AKQA Copenhagen