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What is brand purpose and why is it important?

12 min read
From finding your “why” to weathering controversy, here’s a complete guide to understanding, developing and acting on brand purpose in your business.


Does your brand have a mission? What do you stand for? What do you strive to do – or pledge never to do – because of your values as a company?

Questions like these are at the heart of brand purpose.

Brand purpose: definition

Brand purpose is a company’s “why” – its reason for being and the things it stands for. This “why” is usually to do with the customers it serves and the market niche it seeks to fill.

A brand’s purpose might be a reflection of the founders’ lives and experiences, their perception of a gap in the market or a need for change and disruption within a market sector.

Brand purpose can be political, ethical or moral, providing a choice for people who want to make buying decisions that support a way of life. Or it could be results-focused, e.g re-writing the rule book in order to overcome limitations and meet the highest possible standards.

One of the early proponents of brand purpose was Simon Sinek, author of the book “Start with Why”, who introduced the idea of defining purpose to a global audience in his 2009 TED talk.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Purpose, vision, mission and values

But wait – isn’t brand purpose the same as company mission? Not quite.

Brand purpose sits among a number of other terms related to company organisation and direction, but they don’t all mean the same thing. You can think of purpose, vision, mission and values as a nested set, with brand purpose as the starting point that everything else flows from.

  • Brand purpose
    The overarching reason for being behind your brand, and what it contributes to the world.
    Example:
    Make zero-carbon transport a reality for all
  • Vision
    The long-term goals you strive for
    Example:
    Make affordable, safe electric vehicles available to every person in the United Kingdom
  • Mission
    How you will achieve your goals
    Example:
    In manufacturing, marketing and servicing our electric vehicles, we will continually innovate and strive for lower costs and higher quality. We will always put safety first in everything we do.
  • Brand values
    How you behave and act as you do business – the essence of your company culture.
    Example:
    Trust, teamwork, accountability, passion and focus

Simon Sinek expresses things more simply with his idea of a “golden circle” with “why” in the center, “how” outside it and “what” at the very edge.

WHY – your ultimate purpose
HOW – your tactics, goals and strategies
WHAT – your day-to-day activities

Sinek argues that most people understand their “what”, some understand their “how”, but very few get to grips with the “why” that underpins them.

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What is the value of brand purpose?

Brand purpose is a high-level stance rather than a pragmatic business strategy. But it can form the backbone of powerful change and action.

Today’s brands are increasingly aware of the potential benefits of creating resonance between the personal values of customers and the values demonstrated by the brand.

Customers demand transparency from businesses, and they want to know that they’re putting their money behind a company that does good in the world, or at a minimum does no harm, rather than one that just provides products and services.

Purpose-driven brands can boost loyalty, too. It’s not uncommon that customers who feel that their values align with a company’s make buying decisions on that basis, regardless of price, quality or other more typical drivers of choice.

2018 study by CSR specialists Cone bears these ideas out. The survey found:

  • “78% of people believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well”
  • “77% feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven companies over traditional companies”
  • “66% would switch from a product they typically buy, to a new product from a purpose-driven company”

What does brand purpose look like in action?

Brand purpose begins with your mission and beliefs, and radiates out through company culture, codes of conduct and business decisions.

Ultimately it can touch every part of a business.

For example, imagine a clothing brand that’s founded and run by people who are passionate about sustainability. It naturally follows that they will build recycling and energy-saving into their manufacturing processes and invest in eco-friendly materials.

They are also more likely to build products designed to last a long time, since that minimises waste and reduces the need for more clothes to be manufactured. They’ll need skilled, engaged employees who care about quality and are able to innovate and evolve the product, making it better and better.

The company culture will reflect values of sustainability, and employees and customers will be more likely to adopt sustainable behaviours and habits. All of this starts from a single factor – the company’s brand purpose.

Another way brand purpose is expressed is through marketing and advertising messages. Brands with a strong sense of purpose may reflect this in their sponsorship and partnership choices, or even lend their voice to a cause or campaign.

By speaking out about social issues and politics, brands are playing a role in shaping how society works, and sending a message about the kinds of people they want as customers. (A literal example of this is Yorkshire Tea, which tweeted “don’t buy our tea” to a far-right vlogger.)

Brand purpose and hiring

One benefit of having a clearly defined and expressed brand purpose is in attracting talent and hiring staff. This is where brand purpose and employer branding meet.

Expressing brand purpose in your job ads, recruitment marketing and hiring processes is a great way to attract people who will be a natural fit for your company culture. If you know a new hire shares your values and supports your ultimate mission, it’s much more likely they’ll be happy and engaged in their work.

It’s also another string to your bow when it comes to offering an attractive package that will appeal to in-demand talent, since you are able to compete on a benefit that goes beyond salary package and perks.

Once an employee is hired, the chances are that a shared purpose will make them more likely to stick around. Our 2020 State of Play report on employee engagement showed that having confidence in senior leadership’s decisions was one of the top drivers of intent to stay.

Brand purpose examples

Sometimes meaning comes across best when you show as well as tell. With that in mind, here are 3 examples of brand purpose and the impact it can have.

Nike

The sportswear giant won an Emmy in 2019 for its ‘Dream Crazy’ ad starring Colin Kaepernick. The ad was a clear expression of brand purpose, championing equality of opportunity by showing people overcoming disadvantages to achieve their goals – whilst making sure it aligned with the brand’s positioning. The casting of Colin Kaepernick also delivered a message about Nike’s stance on Black Lives Matter and police brutality in the US – ex-NFL player Kaepernick is known for kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest.

As well as winning an Emmy for the ad, Nike saw its company value increase by $6 billion, a rise attributed to the campaign.

P&G

Household and hygiene giant Proctor & Gamble went a step beyond public statements in its support of equality and anti-racism. In June 2020, the brand conducted a full review of its advertising platforms to make sure none were acting in a way that was “hateful, denigrating or discriminatory” to any group or community. The brand pledged to work with advertising partners to ensure its standards were met, and promised to take steps up to, and including, the halting of ad spend if advertisers did not comply.

This move places brand purpose ahead of profit and even risks disrupting the infrastructure of doing business. It forces not just consumers, but agencies, media brands and ad networks to re-appraise their approach to equality. It’s an audacious step.

Unilever

Super-corporation Unilever has publicly put its faith in brand purpose, with CEO Alan Jope stating: “Two-thirds of consumers around the world say they choose brands because of their stand on social issues, and over 90% of millennials say they would switch brands for one which champions a cause.”

Jope wants every Unilever brand to have a purpose, and was even quoted by Forbes as saying “brands that don’t stand for something will be disposed of”

Within Unilever’s stable of ultra-profitable, fast-growing purpose-driven brands, a diverse range of values and causes is represented. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is aligned with climate change and anti-racism, Dove champions women’s self-esteem and body positivity, while anti-bacterial soap brand Lifebuoy seeks to improve health and hygiene in developing countries.

Unilever itself has not chosen a particular cause, but is committed to giving every brand the time and space to find its purpose and express it. In this sense, it seems that Unilever’s brand purpose is… brand purpose.

Brand purpose pitfalls

While brand purpose clearly has huge potential benefits, there are some cautionary points to note for companies seeking to get involved.

Authenticity is key

Consumer awareness and scrutiny has never been more acute. Brands who give the impression of “greenwashing” (attempting to cash in on sustainable messages without truly acting sustainably) or even “wokewashing” (doing the same with social justice) are in line for severe criticism and a huge loss of credibility and brand value.

Brand purpose should be a development and expression of the values already present in a company, rather than something that’s bolted on or suddenly adopted in response to a perceived need. If your brand’s purpose is unclear, don’t rush into choosing and announcing a stance or cause to align with. Use listening and feedback tools to discover the values at the heart of your company culture and develop them at a sustainable pace.

Controversy is a given

Expressing a purpose involves bravery and vulnerability, whether you do it as an individual or as a company. The values that form brand purpose tend to be deep and emotionally engaging, and as a result, they can stir strong opinions, both positive and negative.

When you publish brand purpose marketing and messaging, it’s likely that you’ll receive criticism as well as praise. You may even lose a few customers. Even the highly successful Nike Kaepernick campaign had people burning their Nike clothing, not to mention the disapproval of the US president. Being prepared to stand by your values and focus on your purpose is key.

While it may not be a quick fix or an easy win, taking the time to explore and expand your brand purpose is a worthwhile endeavour that more and more companies are undertaking. Over time, the business landscape may shift to a point where brands with purpose are the standard, and those without are left behind.

eBook: How to build your brand for growth in the experience economy