Purposeful branding: too good to be true?

It’s no secret that purpose has become something of a buzzword recently. With Afdhel Aziz and Bobby Jones declaring last year that ‘good is the new cool’, marketers have quickly cottoned on to the fact that profit-focused brands aren’t going to cut it with the new generation of consumers - who are more educated, engaged and committed to social causes than ever before. Instead, it seems in order to thrive, brands must pursue a purpose that’s bigger than themselves and focus on creating value for society as a whole.

That was all until a few months ago, when a host of commentators came out of the woodwork and started to question whether brand purpose really is as magical as it’s been made out to be. Clearly stirred by Pepsi’s embarrassingly misguided ‘protest’ ad, critics like Mark Ritson have raised doubts over whether brands should be aspiring to such lofty ideals at all. Though we’d be the first to admit that Pepsi made a corker of a brand blunder, we can’t help feeling there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water here. Sure, aligning your brand to a higher cause isn’t easy (nobody ever said it would be) but just because certain brands are cutting corners when it comes to their principles doesn’t mean we should give up on the whole idea.

Ever the optimists, we’ve assembled our top tips for purposeful branding - to help keep all you well-intentioned brand-owners on the right track.  

1. Be specific

One reason why Pepsi’s activism ad was such a spectacular fail was that it tried to tap into the buzz around protest movements like Black Lives Matter, without respecting the messages that lay behind them. The ad saw actors waving banners displaying middle-ground messages like ‘Join the Conversation’ and ‘Maybe talk to people ikr haha’ - giving the impression that Pepsi’s not only out-of-touch, but afraid to stand for anything. By contrast, the brands that get purpose right are fearlessly particular about what they stand for. Take the shoe brand TOMs, which chose the specific (but not insignificant) issue of children growing up in developing countries without shoes. By being selective about how it defined its reason-for-being, TOMS has been able to focus its efforts towards solving a single, distinctive issue and succeed at making a real impact as a result.

2. Know your place

Brands can absolutely shape our societies for the better, but some people are unsure whether they’re comfortable with them stepping in to fill this role. In this context, brands need to be wary about the issues they commit themselves to - by carefully questioning whether they’re qualified to get involved. But beyond picking the right issues, brands need to learn how to practice humility. The majority of brands have only recently come round to the importance of brand purpose and - as a result - shouldn’t be pretending to ‘lead the conversation’.

3. Back yourself

All too often, brands approach their commitments to ‘social issues’ merely as ‘add-ons’ or token ways of improving their public image. But in the age of media-savvy Millennials and their Gen Z counterparts, this approach just isn’t going to make the grade. Having grown up as digital natives, these kid consumers have highly sophisticated bullsh*t detectors and will see through you in a heartbeat if your efforts are anything other than authentic. So, in order to stay in the clear brands need to place purpose at their very core and live it out in everything they do. We’re not just talking about touch points here, but everything from your business practices to the way you source your materials, your commitment to workplace diversity to the way you treat your suppliers. And the list goes on…

4. Cut the bull

So you’ve got some admirable aspirations and that’s great, but don’t pretend like your worthy ideas suddenly negate an interest in profit. It’s a misconception that profit and purpose are mutually exclusive. One of the biggest arguments put forward in favour of purpose in recent years is that acting responsibly can actually make brands more money. Unilever famously proved this a few months ago, when it reported that its sustainable living brands had grown 50% faster than the rest of the business in 2016. But the problem with arguments like this that they treat purpose simply as another means of increasing sales, rather than something that’s worth pursuing in its own right. To avoid seeming opportunistic then, you need to be totally honest about the fact profit’s important to you. It not only helps your brand to thrive, but it’s what enables you to invest in social causes in the first place.

5. Stop shouting about it

As tempting as it is to shout about all the worthy causes you’re pursuing, doing so only reinforces the suspicion (which pretty much all consumers have) that your good deeds are self-serving. A study published by the Trinity Mirror this year found 58% of adults don’t trust a brand until they have seen ‘real world proof’ that it has kept its promises. So, operating on the principle that flashy adverts are expensive to produce, focus your resources on showing the world how great you are, instead of telling them. And remember this - as soon as consumers start to believe in you, they’ll do the telling for you.

So there it is – 5 ways to avoid the pitfalls of purpose and create an authentically altruistic brand. Although big-hearted branding isn’t too good to be true, these points prove it certainly isn’t easy. It was Bill Bernbach who first said that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. But with the crisis of confidence brands are currently experiencing, ignoring purpose altogether could end up costing a lot more...

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