Brand purpose? Isn’t that positioning of old?

I had one of those meetings last week that you expect and dread with equal measure. An old friend of mine, who works in marketing and reads far too much to be good for him, asked me out for a beer and then wanted some advice. The brand he works for does not have a ‘brand purpose’ and he wondered if this would limit future growth and, perhaps worse, signal his team were deficient in brand management.

Mark Ritson

It’s a tricky question because it has become uber-fashionable to adopt a brand purpose in recent years. According to brand consulting firm Landor, defining your brand purpose is the “deepest expression of a brand” and the growing literature on the concept suggests it is a winning combination of brand heritage, positioning, mission statement and social conscience. How can that be a bad thing?

In this brave new world, Amazon isn’t in the business of selling you stuff online, its brand purpose is ‘freedom of choice’. Futurebrand isn’t offering brand consulting, it is here to ‘create a more positive future’. Coke doesn’t sell cola anymore, it exists to ‘inspire moments of happiness’ while Johnnie Walker has stopped selling whisky in favour of ‘celebrating journeys of progress and success’. Goldman Sachs no longer proffers financial services but rather ‘revels in mammon and all the glory it bestows’.

OK, I made up the last one but the rest of them are for real and they are the tip of a constantly growing iceberg. It has become impossible to operate in brand management without bumping into brand purpose. 

The man to blame for all this is former Procter & Gamble chief marketing officer Jim Stengel, who left the world’s most famous brand management company and wrote a rather persuasive book called Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies. The book zoomed in on 50 brands that Stengel deemed superior. When he studied them carefully, Stengel concluded the key reason for their success was that each had a clearly defined brand purpose at the heart of their operations.

That was in 2011 and, marketing being the international echo chamber that it is, most British brands are now asking the same question as my mate in the pub last week: why don’t we have a brand purpose? Forever paranoid about missing the next big thing, most marketers are more than happy to embrace a new branding concept at the risk of looking out of date.

And the concept is persuasive. Anything from a man as experienced and intelligent as Jim Stengel is always going to be met with waves of adulation. I think the only person who found fault with his book was Professor Byron Sharp, who dismissed it as nonsense. But he has a consistent track record of rabidly dismissing everything other than his own approach so that rather represents par for the course.

The reality of brand purpose is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it but it is nothing new either. Read Stengel’s case studies and you’ll encounter an entirely classical approach to brand positioning. You interrogate your founders and history. You search for what has made you distinctive and special. You try to climb as far up the benefit ladder as possible. Then you articulate it in a tight and meaningful way. Finally, you use the articulation to behave differently and to delight target consumers. It’s a new dress made from the oldest fabric of all.

The only problem with brand purpose is that it is positioned as new. That means most addled brand managers are going to add it to their overladen definition of their brand already creaking under the weight of brand essence, brand attributes, lovemarks, value propositions, mission statements and brand wheels.

Call it brand purpose. Call it brand positioning. Call it magic moonbeam juice if you like. Just don’t call it more than one thing because all it is meant to be is the intention behind everything you do. That’s the advice I gave my mate and, because my own brand purpose is “to spout horseshit in an apparently meaningful and impressive manner”, he smiled, nodded sagely and went off to buy the next round. Result.

Readers' comments (12)

  • Authors "re-invent" marketing every time they have a book to sell. Only the untrained marketeer who doesn't quite know his/her onions is seduced. The principles remain the same with the holy trinity of segmentation, targeting and positioning being the core. Id suggest your positioning, Mark, is as follows: Separating the wheat from the chaff.

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  • While I'm no fan of re-inventing concepts. . can I suggest that a sense of purpose is more effective because:
    A. Service businesses are an increasing proportion of GDP - where front line employees need to be emotionally motivated
    B. Employee engagement is ever more critical to success, especially with Gen Y employees

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  • I often say that different branding constructs are like different currencies: they all spend. Just don't confuse the cashier by handing them a handful of mixed notes.

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  • An idea as old as the hills. Actually Mark, I liked 'brand belief' which your much more attractive friend and colleague (Helen Edwards) used in her book 'Passion Brands'.

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  • I aggree with every single word you wrote. However, we can always pull it up some different approach to the same problem. This is marketing guys, what do you expect? A book talking about the same problems we were talking long time ago and the same ideas? Obviously not. Call to action. Lol. Well, brand positioning is pretty much what you want to your client/potential target think about yourself. And Mark, I have to say: yours is one of the best. Cheers

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  • I'm inclined to agree with you Mark. It's smoke and mirrors rather than a significant quake on the marketing richter scale. And it's repositioned brand positionings like this that put the 'con' into (brand) consultants. The framework, foundations and footings needed to build a brand haven't changed, but the customer, their expectations and their environment has. This is tough enough to keep up to date with, so let the marketing teams focus here and don't let them get distracted by semantics.

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  • Whilst I always enjoys Mark's debunking posts, I agree with Iain on brand engagement.
    We should also separate out the purpose involved in the creation of the brand from the purpose of the brand in the life of the customer.
    We've all seen brilliant creative work that is at odds with the brand's purpose. But aligned creative is much more powerful,

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  • Very timely piece for me. We're launching a new business member organisation for a small city in England. Long story but essentially its role is to unify all the various bodies (LEP, councils, other business orgs etc) and get them working as one, leading to progress and growth rather than the opposite. We've considered the positioning but before that we had to make the client understand the need to answer the question 'Why do you exist?' Essentially, 'what is your purpose?'. This might be organisational purpose rather than brand purpose but I'd never come across this before - but we think it is key to a successful launch. With so many other orgs in the city, positioning alone isn't enough. Our client needs to create a very strong case for its existence.

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  • I get where you're coming from, and far be it from me to jump on a bandwagon. BUT, having spent some time researching and interacting with the Simon Sinek "purpose think" I have to say I'm a convert to WHY.

    I'll even admit to having updated my own positioning statement this week with a simple line about "why we do what we do".

    If you haven't already, I recommend finding the Sinek videos online. He makes a compelling argument...

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  • Mark -I get where you're coming from, and far be it from me to jump on a bandwagon. BUT, having spent some time researching and interacting with the Simon Sinek "purpose think" I have to say I'm a convert to WHY.

    I'll even admit to having updated my own positioning statement this week with a simple line about "why we do what we do".

    If you haven't already, I recommend finding the Sinek videos online. He makes a compelling argument...

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