Brand Purpose without substance serves no purpose at all

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Union Connect Account Manager, Lucy Kennedy, gives her thoughts on the concept of ‘Brand Purpose’ and discusses the role it will continue to play in advertising and beyond.

The marketing sphere has been buzzing with the notion of brand purpose recently following impressive successes and stunning failures by brands trying to leverage it.

Brand purpose can provide the foundation of the brand and what it stands for; it can define the heartbeat of the organisation and should be at the forefront of all business decisions.

There is a growing trend in society, largely driven by Millennials and Generation Z (who make up 75% of consumers supporting brand purpose), for brands to be held accountable for their behaviour on sustainability, culture and societal issues.

Gone are the days (if they ever existed in the first place) when price and product quality were the sole decision-making factors in the customer purchase journey. A company’s ethical values and behaviour towards its employees are now a high priority for the modern consumer.

66% of consumers crave greater transparency in how companies source their products, ensure safe working conditions and their stance on divisive issues such as animal testing.

Social media gives consumers the opportunity to provide brands with constant feedback loops, meaning that brand perception is more important than ever.

37% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of their words or actions about a social issue, showing that if your brand’s values don’t align to that of your target audience, you’re going to have a problem.

On the flip side, 31% of consumers are attracted to brands that take a political stand on issues they care about, so if you’re able to match your purpose to the attitudes and beliefs of your target audience, you could well be on to a winner.

A strong brand purpose can help keep customers happy and head off the kind of social media backlash that brands behaving unethically are increasingly facing, but it can also provide marketing value of a different kind. Specifically, brand purpose strategies can provide great opportunities for differentiation in an overcrowded market place; even allowing challenger brands the ability to compete against larger rivals commanding a greater share of voice.

But creating a true brand purpose that consumers will get behind is easier said than done. Brands that do it best do so by truly living and breathing their purpose across everything they do. Patagonia is one such example.

Their mission statement ‘to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis’ is the central thought that guides every aspect of the company from sustainable products, company culture and supporting grass roots organisations across the world. Marketing budgets are invested in campaigns focusing on raising awareness of important issues e.g. Blue Heart which fights to protect wild rivers from dam creation. And the investment that is put behind Patagonia products is not a sales-driven message to increase revenue. Instead, campaigns such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ are created which encourages customers to only buy things they actually need. This remains to be the common theme through all of the brand’s product marketing efforts. A rare approach for a company operating in a capital consumerist world but it’s working as despite all of this, Patagonia has a healthy sales figure of over $600m.

However, brands need to be careful that they are not guilty of trendjacking or jumping on the bandwagon to increase sales. Pepsi sparked a huge backlash with their ‘Live for Now’ campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. The spot showed Jenner seemingly settling tensions between protestors and the police by simply offering up a can of Pepsi. Social media accused Pepsi of being ‘tone-deaf’, exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement and trivialising a huge societal issue; just so they could sell more cans.

This highlights the problem of trendjacking, or constructing a misjudged brand purpose and trying to fit this in retrospectively. If that purpose has nothing to do with the brand or the values it has displayed to date, it will come across as inauthentic and will be entirely transparent to customers.

Brand purpose as a notion is here to stay, the societal movement towards accountability is apparent and will only continue to grow. Yes, some customers will just buy a brand because they like the product, but for how much longer will this be the case? Of course, low interest convenience products arguably have it a little easier but this doesn’t mean they can’t get involved, laundry detergent brand, Persil, is a good example of low interest categories pathing the way for brand purpose with their ‘Dirt is Good’ ethos.

When considering brand purpose, companies need to determine whether this is underpinning everything they do and I think most importantly, is it well aligned to the brand and its target audience’s mindset? Because if not, it will be seen as spin to make an extra buck and customers will spot this a mile off. At best, they’ll make their feelings known on social media or to friends. At worst, they’ll vote with their feet and brands will face an uphill battle to win them back.