Brand Purpose: Does It Have A Purpose?

Brand Purpose: Does It Have A Purpose?
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B&T’s regular agitator, Robert Strohfeldt, is back with his latest musings. This time he tries to decipher the meaning of one of the most common marketing utterances – brand purpose…

What is brand purpose? There are a few definitions floating around, though Marketing Weekly recently published one that best sums up the meaning: “Consumers increasingly want organisations and brands able to demonstrate a purpose beyond profit and prove a business commitment to making the world a better place, but it requires more than a snappy slogan, with brands needing to set out their objectives and prove they are in it for the long term.”

The proponents of brand purpose believe:

“People are not attracted by what companies do but WHY they do a specific product or service.”

And do they believe that after a “hard day’s shopping”, consumers all sit around a campfire, hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

Maybe I am missing something, but in 30 plus years and more than 1000 focus groups, one-on-one depths, ethnographic studies etc. I have never heard even one respondent ask “Why”?

The primary goal of brands/companies/businesses (whatever terminology you wish to use), is to make a profit. Ask any consumer, “why do brands do what they do?” and I can guarantee they will say “to make money”, or something similar.

Borrowing from Bruce Springsteen, “Brands like us, baby we were born to sell.”

One of the best definitions of the role of marketing I have heard is:

“Long term, positive cash flow”. (Thanks to my friend Bob Miller, former director of marketing at Toyota and a legend of Australian marketing)

Ask any CEO with years of successful experience and they will tell you “being good is good for business”. But brand purpose is putting the cart before the horse. It is hard for any business to engage is great acts of philanthropy if they are going broke.

Successful companies (and individuals) believe they have a responsibility to “give back”.

What is now being called brand purpose was once referred to as cause marketing. This doesn’t have quite the same ring to it – supporting a not for profit “cause” versus stating the purpose of the brand is to help build a better world.

Some well- known brands may have a problem trying to put a positive spin on this – Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Winchester and Colt. (Then again, the original Colt 45 was called ‘The Peace Maker’).

And this “theory” ignores one of the most basic and strongest drivers of human behavior – ego/self – satisfaction. (Have a look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). If you were one of the billion or so people who watched the Royal wedding on the weekend, you probably heard Meghan Markle’s dress was from Givenchy. This coup will do more for their brand image than any act of philanthropy. (“Meghan’s dress was stunning, but I am going with Dior. They do more to save the world”. I don’t think so.)

The Drucker Institute (If you don’t know of Peter Drucker, you are probably a supporter of brand purpose), in December last year, released its inaugural “Management. Top 250”.

No prize for guessing the winner: Amazon. Businesses were rated on five key metrics:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee engagement and development
  • Innovation
  • Social responsibility
  • Financial strength

Yet Amazon was in the bottom 20 per cent of companies on the score of social responsibility It would seem not too many people are asking why about Amazon, rather what and the what is pretty bloody good.

After being in this game for over 30 years, you get to observe many changes. It is easy to be dazzled and side tracked by all the new technology but look though the smoke and mirrors and you realise the basics have not changed. I read recently that – branding is all about your reputation; trust results in purchases; brands that evoke emotions are remembered; continuity of a brand look and feel is vital. So many basics are “new” again. Though digital marketing and advertising started to grow from the early 2000s, it has been the past 10 years or so (particularly since the advent of social media) that the “digital first” approach became dominant. With so many platforms/conduits to the consumer now, a multitude of mutually exclusive silos sprung up, all calling themselves digital marketers (and advertisers). The result – tactical thinking and activities at the expense of longer term strategic thinking and actions. It is difficult, nah impossible, to think strategically if a holistic, integrated approach is not encompassed.

It does seem that brand purpose has garnered quite a deal of support from the advertising industry as a great new strategic brand building initiative.

And what were once the ‘big eight’ chartered accounting firms, slice and dice, merge and purge and end up as the ‘big four’ advisory firms. Marketers and advertising agencies have lost the art/science (still requires both) of strategic thinking and planning to the point we are being usurped by a bunch of bloody accountants.

The threat they posed has been obvious to anyone who bothered to look (and think) for close to 30 years.

So, while the advisory and management consulting firms are workshopping with clients the four quadrants of marketing management or working on a derivative of the Rossiter/Percy grid to better understand the drivers of purchase, ad agencies are saying “forgot that stuff, let’s look at how your brands and products can make the world a better place.”

Philanthropy is as old as commerce itself. So many great initiatives have come from the business world and there is no denying a brand benefits from being seen as a good corporate citizen. The emphasis here is on “being seen”. (Elon Musk is a master at this).

Every “not for profit” organistaion of any worth and significance is funded by private sector sponsorships. And these companies leverage their associations and do their best to tell consumers what good people they are.

As CEO, try telling a board of directors of any publicly listed company that you have budgeted $10 million to philanthropy that gives the business no commercial benefit, but will “make the world a better place”. Not sure what would come first, the drug test, or the termination of contract. (Both would occur)

A simple, but effective experiment to gauge how devoted consumers are to “making the world a better place”:

Put two tables of identical polo t-shirts side by side in a shopping center.

One is made in Bangladesh by child labour working 12 hours a day and sell for $7.50 each. The other is manufactured “ethically” in Australia and sell for $17.50 each. The former has a sign “Made in Bangladesh”, the latter “Made in Australia”. By the time the cheaper T-Shirts have been sold out, not even 10 per cent of the “ethically” manufactured t-shirts would have been purchased.

The role of the United Nations is to make the world a better place. And with all the money and resources available to them, haven’t they done a wonderful job?

What will be the next hair brained, idealistic idea put forward? Marxism? (Hang on …..)

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brand purpose Robert Strohfeldt

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