What is brand purpose?

Everyone is talking about brand purpose. But the term seems like marmite in the industry. There are those who live by it and those that don’t see the purpose of it at all. Pun intended. So, why is it dividing the crowd? I think it is a question of definition and perspective. After all, there are several different takes on the meaning of brand purpose and what role it plays for brands.

In this article, I share my views on what brand purpose is, what it is not, and how having clarity today can serve a brand well in the future.

Defining Brand Purpose

We define brand purpose as the brand’s reason for being. Of course, the very nature of businesses is to make money, but businesses are set up in the first instance because of a bigger, aspirational idea – beyond the aim of turning a profit.

Essentially, your brand purpose is what your business is here for. It’s an existential question a brand should always be able to answer. Concisely. Having clarity on purpose is the core building block in developing a brand.

In most cases, purpose is based on a big idea or ambition that was born out of a desire to fulfil an unmet consumer need. So, it can be practically anything. Simply put, a brand’s purpose is providing the solution to a problem. This ambition never changes in the lifetime of a brand. Nike’s original ambition to help everyone embrace their inner athlete is still their core purpose, and so is Amazon’s aim to be earth’s most customer-centric company.

Another good example, is how we’ve recently helped our client MacKenzie King – a specialist accountancy & finance consultancy – to redefine their brand purpose which lies in “taking pride and aspiration in other’s success.” Likewise, our client Matthew Hill, a US-based business anthropologist who consults with Fortune 500 companies on corporate culture, defines his ultimate ambition as “improving the quality of workplaces so that people enjoy going to work and feel like they can make a difference.”

Actions speak louder than words

I see brand purpose as an internal truth, a motivation, a driver – or to borrow a friend’s expression– the North Star of the organisation. Purpose is intricately linked to a set of brand values, and together purpose and values are the guiding principles that inform behaviours and decisions. They help to align each element of a business.

Purpose and values translate into and guide business decisions and actions. Stating your purpose in words on your website does not really achieve anything. To be understood and felt by their audience, it needs to be lived by the brand in everything that it does. It needs to inform every brand touchpoint, from talent acquisition and customer service to advertising and communications.

Brand Purpose – So, why the bad rep?

Brands exist within the environments they operate, so context is everything. A brand can be influenced by a variety of factors, such competitors, location, politics, ethnicity, and other aspects. With that, every brand has the responsibility to operate in the most ethical way possible and to incorporate best practices, whether that’s relating to environmental, health, political or social issues.

There is a grey area where brand purpose, sustainability goals, health and social initiatives overlap, and this group of brands is growing. This has always been the case for non-commercial brands such as charities and non-for profits (Greenpeace, Shelter and Cancer Research to name just a few), but also for commercial organisations such as green energy providers (Bulb), sustainable fashion (Patagonia), as well as cosmetic or hygiene brands. The one that stands out to me is the aptly named toilet roll brand Who Gives a Crap, whose purpose it is to “Save the world, one wipe at a time.”

However, brand purpose is not necessarily synonymous with a brand’s evolving mindset and actions to tackle ethical issues – unless this is their primary reason for being. But to answer to environmental demands, health or social issues, organisations must commit to making a positive impact. This could be through improvements in product or packaging design, supply chain changes, internal governance, B Corp certifications or CSR programmes to positively affect workforce and communities.

Over the last few years, the term brand purpose has rightly or wrongly been adopted as a label for these CSR efforts and programmes. Some big brands are making huge strides, but others are being ousted for their hypocrisy and empty promises. Practices, such as tax avoidance, underpaying staff, exploiting work forces or using non-sustainable materials etc, undermined these claims. Subsequently, this misbehaviour has started to taint the term brand purpose.

No doubt, eventually, every business will need to adapt and change their mindset to help tackle the global and social issues we’re facing, though. If my theory is right, and brands have a strong purpose to begin with, it’ll remain intact and even help guide them to deliver on their guiding principles.

So, how do you create a brand purpose that’ll carry you through?

Instinctively, you’ll know whether your brand purpose is a positive guiding force within your organisation. If you have a strong sense of purpose, every interaction you have, marketing material you create, and meeting you attend will speak to one truth.

If yours is feeling a little lost, though, or there’s a lack of clarity internally on what your purpose is, we can help. Our brand strategy process will help you rediscover it and give a renewed sense of clarity that you can take into so many aspects of your business.

Feel free to get in touch for an informal chat.

About Franzi Scheithauer

Franzi is Creative Director at Studio Brand Up and specialises in brand strategy and identity design.