Brand purpose is easier said than done

Brand purpose is easier said than done

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I call it the goodness movement – the rush to appear responsible that has gripped global brands over recent years. Recognising that ethics, sustainability and CSR are now consideration factors in consumer purchasing (although we could debate the extent), brands are eager to show the world that they are doing what they can. But how much of what they are saying is actually driving how they operate and the decisions they make?

Recent research by UK creative consultancy Radley Yeldar found that while 3 out of 4 brands aim to make a positive difference to society and describe their higher purpose in terms of social or human benefit, only 1 in 9 can convincingly show how their purpose is put into practice. Interestingly, when it comes to living what they say they believe, the study found utilities firms are most authentic while healthcare firms frequently failed to back up their words with actions.

A noticeable lack of alignment

Other key findings from the Fit for Purpose Index show that while brands are keen to talk up their commitments, integration of those commitments into the business workings was far less emphatic. For example, while 82% of companies used case studies to demonstrate their application of purpose, less than half that number (38%) aligned their sustainability strategy with their purpose and less than half that number again (17%) were able to show how purpose was intrinsic to the business strategy and value generation. Just 6% have redefined their governance structure to support the delivery of purpose.

Leadership is a strong and consistent predictor of authentic corporate purpose

Research by IMD and Burson-Marsteller earlier this year may offer some explanation as to why brands struggle to bring purpose to life in their decision-making. Their research showed that leadership is a strong and consistent predictor of authentic corporate purpose and that there is often something of a gap between a company’s corporate purpose and the attitudes of management. Decision makers may be talking a good game, but they are not necessarily guided by the principles they have put in place. For example, while executives generally agreed that their own company had an authentic corporate purpose, they also said they do not always rely on the purpose to guide their decision-making.

All of this suggests that purpose has some way to travel before it is accepted and used consistently as a critical marker for brand decisions. It’s a reminder too that for all the talk of listening to the customer and managing the brand in ways that make it attractive and competitive for consumers, many brand decisions are still surprisingly insular. Brand owners continue to make decisions that align with their view of what the brand requires rather than how the brand undertook to behave. Purpose makes a good keyword, it seems, but is something of a hard taskmaster.

4 reasons why purpose lacks traction

Firstly, purpose simply remains too broad a concept to be real to many of those in charge of the day to day management and reporting of brands. Many purpose statements read as they were designed – like a committee statement – and because of that they lay out no particular vision and no specific mandates for what the brand can and cannot do in its pursuit of purposeful enterprise.

Secondly, too many brand purpose statements are not backed up with a measurement framework that managers are able to reference in order to articulate tangible progress or regression. As a result, purpose quickly lapses into paperwork.

Thirdly, and because of the two reasons above, while brands may articulate a purpose, my experience is that brand managers, under pressure to deliver results, will choose to make ‘exceptions’ in the interests of the immediate project. Such actions quickly establish precedents and undermine the importance of incorporating purpose into day-to-day actions.

Finally, while consumers may make noises about the importance of brands behaving well, for the most part (and scandals aside) they do not act in decisive ways to correct behaviours that are off-purpose. As a result, brands come to believe that they can, if they have to, talk one way and act in another, or spin what they are doing so that it correlates very broadly with the open-ended principles that they have said they are following.

Where does this leave purpose?

Should we even take purpose seriously as a strategic driver for brands? Can it ever be real, or is it simply another piece of marketing theory? Whilst I understand the cynicism, and I believe that there is still plenty to develop in terms of purposeful frameworks to make purpose a more meaningful presence in the day-to-day running of brands, a strong purpose has a clear role to play as a North Star. It can and should provide consistent guidance over the longer term. It should form the basis for the story of the brand. It should articulate the place and role of the brand in the world. But as Radley Yeldar’s research shows, and the IMD and Burson-Marsteller corroborates, we’re not there yet. Not even close.



2 thoughts on “Brand purpose is easier said than done

  1. Good points, well made – particularly around the schism between corporate expression of purpose and the realities and decisions made by managers when they are under pressure to deliver; getting a result swiftly and with maximum stats is unconditionally celebrated.
    An exception to this might be brands behind a cause (of which there are an ever increasing number) charities; NGOs; pressure groups; community action; education or socio-political campaigns. There is a delicate balance to be struck between maintaining integrity of purpose and attracting corporate funding in order to increase the reach of the ethical purposes.
    If those groups who do achieve the balance successfully, shared their approach, it could prove a tipping point within the wider corporate landscape perhaps?

    1. I agree Suzie. It would also put pressure on those who talk up their purpose to express that commitment in more credible ways (by providing a clear how) and keep them under greater scrutiny (should they lapse). Excellent points. Thanks for adding.

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