Embedding an ethical, sustainable or political purpose into your brand is a good thing.
According to our survey of 600 CMOs, the benefits of brand purpose include improved loyalty (for 71%), increased sales (69%), winning new customers (65%) and building a reputable brand (58%).
While these are attractive attributes in and of themselves, they are doubly attractive because they align with CMOs’ marketing objectives with a high degree of accuracy. CMOs want to increase sales (74%), win new customers (70%), improve loyalty (62%) and build a reputable brand (58%).
This neat alignment explains why purpose can work so well for brands.
Embedding brand purpose into a business can take significant effort, through engaging staff, building momentum for the purpose, and then including the purpose in the brand’s overall focus.
This focus is crucial, and the reason why certain brands and their purpose align so successfully.
For example, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is focused on the environment and campaigns on several fronts, from opposing oil drilling to supporting environmental groups, giving 1% of its sales to them. The brand and purpose are neatly aligned – clothing for the outdoors that protects the outdoors.
Toms Shoes was originally conceived to give a pair of shoes to those that needed them for every pair sold. The notion of giving a pair of shoes for every sale was a neat way to turn a buyer into a philanthropist, and this worked extremely well until 2019, where the brand decided to adapt to the idea to focus profits on grassroots groups with social impact, in a way they say will increase philanthropy further.
Both examples align the brand to the purpose very successfully, so the brand and its purpose are virtually synonymous.
However, brands can sometimes take their purpose too far from their core rationale, or if the purpose becomes convoluted, consumers can be left confused. And this can pose a problem.
This overstretch can manifest itself in many ways.
1. Purpose without purpose
Brands that wear the clothes of purpose without walking the talk of purpose face a challenge from consumers.
Pepsi’s infamous ad featuring Kendal Jenner in 2017 portrayed the drink as a catalyst for both revolution and peace. With the # BlackLivesMatter movement growing in strength, this seemed clumsy at best, particularly as Pepsi had not previously displayed any notable brand purpose in the past that focused on social issues, although it has made environmental commitments.
To many, the ad seemed like a brazen attempt to jump on a growing trend of social equality, but without doing anything to further that cause. The brand was widely criticized for the ad, which it quickly dropped.
2. Confusing purpose
Handmade cosmetics brand Lush has a rich heritage of ethical behavior which includes a charter, it is against animal testing, and demands fairness from its supply chain.
But in 2018, it made a foray into areas far beyond its usual frame of reference – of undercover police officers masquerading as ordinary citizens.
When Lush launched a series of articles and window displays under the #spycops banner, many customers were left bemused. The campaign criticized the police for their long-term policy of embedding undercover officers into activist groups. While there are clear issues at play, for example where women were tricked into relationships with undercover officers, it all seemed a little out of the ordinary for a cosmetics company.
Again, the brand quickly dropped the campaign.
3. Purpose disconnect
The ubiquitous Hellman’s mayonnaise brand (owned by Unilever) adopted the mission to ‘fight against food waste’. While the brand and purpose do seem to match at first glance – both relate to food – the question that emerged is, how?
How does a tub or tube of mayonnaise fight against food waste? The campaign was also hectoring of the customer to some extent.
The brand could not answer how exactly mayonnaise could reduce food waste, other than by buying the product and smothering leftovers in it. Brand owner Unilever has a larger mission, to embed brand purpose into its many products. Many of Unilever’s initiatives have been very successful and genuine. But in this case, it simply didn’t work. The link was forced and clumsy, seeming more focused on sales rather than purpose.
Purpose can work well for a brand by aligning the product or service with the purpose itself. However, if the purpose overreaches the brand, it becomes a misalignment. Moreover, consumers are sensitive to the perceived honesty of a brand, with 94% saying brand honesty was important for them.
According to CMOs, that perception of dishonesty could hit reviews or ratings (according to 46% of CMOs), reduce sales (42%), reduce word-of-mouth (35%) and reduce loyalty (30%), so the effects of a perception of dishonesty are complex but significant.
To keep your brand aligned with its purpose and avoid the pitfalls explained above, it’s important to do three things:
Firstly, ask whether any new initiative can be backed-up by the brand. Pepsi’s foray into campaigning on social issues was not based on fact – it was pure marketing and seemed fake as a result.
Secondly, does a new campaign align with the brand and established purpose? Like Lush found, a brand – even one with a strong track record of campaigning – can find itself stuck when it ventures into areas that are tangential to what it is all about.
Finally, ask whether the purpose is oversold. Are the promises made about purpose realistic? Hellman’s found this when advising on food waste with few practical solutions that would make a real difference, even if the intentions were genuine.
While embedding purpose into a brand has many positive effects, there are risks if a brand overreaches, which can seem confusing, nonsensical or even dishonest.
If you'd like to find out more about the importance of getting brand purpose right, 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?
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