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The 5 barriers to adopting brand purpose + why you shouldn't let them stand in your way

Monday, June 13, 2022
The 5 barriers to adopting brand purpose + why you shouldn't let them stand in your way

We know that there is a strong alignment between marketers’ strategic objectives and the benefits of purpose.

The top four benefits of purpose match marketers’ top four marketing objectives:

  1. Improving loyalty.

  2. Winning new customers.

  3. Increasing sales.

  4. Building a reputable brand.

Despite this strong alignment between the benefits of purpose and marketers’ brand objectives, a quarter of brands (24%) avoid adopting purpose, with three in five (59%) only adopting brand purpose to some extent.

While there are good reasons to adopt brand purpose, there may also be good reasons why brands do not.

Let’s look a little more closely at this 24%, and why brands may be disinclined to adopt purpose.

In our research we identified 15 separate barriers to adopting brand purpose, and every respondent chose one of these options – no CMOs said there were no barriers.

Please note that for the themes below, grouped responses were de-duplicated, meaning the individual responses making up those groups will not add together neatly to give the total.

1. Internal culture

Seven in ten (70%) of CMOs say that internal culture is a problem when trying to adopt brand purpose. The specific reasons fall into three main categories.

Firstly, the business culture may be resistant to change – half (50%) of all respondents cite this. Resistance to change is a universal problem, affecting larger organizations with complex or unwieldy bureaucracy more than smaller, more agile, companies.

However, even some smaller organizations may be owned and run by a single individual, and so run according to his or her whims. In such a case, if that person is resistant to brand purpose, then it will most likely not happen.

Secondly, employees may not be engaged. One-third (34%) cite this. Even in organizations keen to adopt brand purpose, if there is inertia amongst staff then, again, nothing of any substance will happen.

Thirdly, if senior stakeholders do not buy into the proposed brand purpose, then this will again feed through to staff and organizational outputs, meaning brand purpose will be neglected.

For all these barriers, the response is the same. For successful brand purpose to spread through an organization and be successfully adopted, all levels of the company must be engaged, from the CEO or owner, down through senior stakeholders and staff. There has to be unity of motivation for purpose to succeed.

2. Lack of skills

Without the right skills, it will be impossible to offer credible brand purpose, and three in five (61%) express issues that relate to skills. One in ten (10%) cite, ‘lack of talent/in-house skills’ as their problem when trying to adopt purpose.

Last year, Nike set stiff standards to increase the proportion of women and ethnic minorities in senior positions. This helps the brand to meet diversity targets, but also helps to attract the right talent into the organization.

However, other respondents are more specific, showing they contemplate brand purpose more deeply.

Two in five (40%) say that they lack the data to understand their starting position. Another 20% say that there is a lack of agreement on best practice, or on what ‘good’ looks like. A further 16% say that there is a lack of universal benchmarking.

All of these final three cases seem to be valid problems. We know that those brands perceived as adopting purpose inauthentically, risk the ire of consumers. These respondents are keen to make progress, but face real barriers through lack of knowledge.

3. Regulation

Businesses do not operate in a vacuum and must meet minimum standards and respond to government pressure in the form of regulation. More than half of respondents (53%) say that regulation poses a problem.

More than two in five (44%) say that competing standards were a problem. This presumably relates to multinationals or companies that sell in more than one market, where the regulations in two different markets may have competing or even contradictory rules.

While this seems to be a valid problem, more stringent standards will mean products or services are acceptable in more markets. This perceived barrier may also relate to a lack of skilled people who understand those competing standards.

Another two in five (18%) say the reverse – that the lack of a universal standard or regulation is a problem. Companies do not want to adopt a particular standard only to find that that standard is redundant a short time later, creating inertia for this group.

Again, this seems to be a legitimate concern, but larger markets are attempting to align their standards to help businesses post-COP 26 with the formation of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) to coordinate this alignment of standards. So this concern should reduce over time.

4. Commercial impact

More than half (53%) say that adopting brand purpose would be a financial drain. The reverse may in fact be true – that the absence of any brand purpose could represent a problem. Unilever has taken this approach, embedding brand purpose into its portfolio of products. In 2019 it claimed that those brands with purpose embedded grew 69% more quickly than those without.

However, two in five (18%) say that adopting purpose would have commercial impact, with another 23% saying that they lack the budget to adopt purpose.

Interestingly, a further three in ten (28%) seem hyper aware of taking the leap to adopt purpose because they fear failure and associated reputational risk. This group seems to be thinking deeply about the consequences of adopting purpose and how to get it right.

5. Relevance

One-third (34%) of businesses say that brand purpose is simply not relevant. Three in ten (30%) say that it is not relevant to their business, 14% say that it is not relevant to their customers, and 12% say that it is not part of their business strategy.

Again, we know that because of the close alignment of brand purpose and marketing objectives, these issues may be overblown or even misguided. For this group, they may believe that purpose is irrelevant, but in a situation where two similar brands compete, purpose does give consumers another reason to buy. This perception of irrelevance may be losing these companies sales.


We know that consumers want purposeful brands, and we also know that brands understand this, but still resist the move to adopting purpose.

Authenticity remains a problem for those CMOs clearly considering purpose – those who lack the skills or those who worry about failing to adopt purpose properly, and risk being seen as dishonest.

Many of these barriers can be overcome. Those brands that take the time to take purpose seriously, considering how their brand can adopt authentic purpose, will benefit.

Over time, brands will hire the right people and better understand their brand’s place and its relationship to purpose. For this reason, we would expect brands to move from not adopting purpose towards adopting purpose, or towards adopting purpose more strongly over time.

If you'd like to find out more about the importance of overcoming the barriers to brand purpose, why not download a free copy of our latest report Brands that take a stand: Marketers who match consumers’ desire for purpose and honesty come out on top?

It's quick and easy, just click the link below.


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