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  • Writer's pictureSylvie Barr

On Purpose

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Sunrise on Miami beach

As we're starting a new year, I’d like to share with you my views on a topic that made the headlines quite a few times in the marketing and advertising industry in the last decade.

It is also something that means a lot to me: it is the notion of Brand Purpose.

Without further a do I’ll say that Brand Purpose is not dead. On the contrary, I believe that brands without a purpose are on their way out.

It seems that the whole debate has been going round in circles, as if a lot of people had forgotten about the fundamentals, about the original and simple way to look at brands.

These days people somehow think that brands are some kinds of living entities out there. The language used to talk about brands in the industry has played its part in that: think ‘brand health’, ‘brand personality’ etc. In that context, talking about ‘brand purpose’ is a logical step, isn’t it?

So why are there as many friends of the concept as there are foes?

I believe that the process of brand creation, management and usage has for many years and in many places contributed to this distorted view of what is fundamentally a brand.

This is particularly true of larger organisations, where, despite all the good intentions of integration and matrix management, teams are siloed in their respective functions, so busy delivering their divisional objectives that they seldom raise their heads to look at the wider picture.

So there you have it: brands are created and managed within the confines of a marketing and communications department, with the input of a creative agency when there’s some budget, cut off from what else is happening in the business.

It’s like scientists in a lab creating some tissue from stem cells.

Then when the brand ‘baby’ is born, the team who created it, like fierce parents, will work hard at protecting it from misuse with reams of manuals and guidelines - oh and jargon, like a secret code that only those from the close family can understand.

I know this because I’ve lived it, I wore the T-shirt. I remember being proud of defining my role as being a ‘brand guardian’ - duh! - the arrogance!

When business is good and the economy is growing, this type of status quo can be maintained and glossed over.

This is no longer the case: a global recession is looming and the competitive environment is ruthless, whichever sector you look at.

Talking about and trying to find the purpose of a brand in a vacuum won’t help. It can even backlash if such a purpose is fake. Consumers can now spot the imposter from a mile and will quickly ditch them, as there are many brands to choose from in any category.

The key to a meaningful and truthful brand purpose can be found in the origins of the word ‘brand’: it comes from the Old Norse word ‘brandr’, meaning ‘to burn’.

‘Brand’ has its roots in cattle ranching, when farmers used to burn the cattle with an iron to claim ownership over their herd.

David Ogilvy first used the word ‘brand’ in the advertising industry in the late 1950’s.

Simply put, a brand helps business owners leave a mark in people’s minds.

From Ford to Dyson, from Chanel to Alexander McQueen, many brands have the same name as the business owners.

And more often than not, together with their vision and passion, consciously or unconsciously, company founders project themselves, together with their own beliefs and values into the business they create.

In that phase, there’s complete osmosis between the business, the founder(s) and the brand.

Because of the size of the business and how the founders completely absorb themselves in it, the brand is the business, and the business is the brand.

Things get tricky when the business grows, when more staff is hired, when organisational structures start building walls between teams, between the business and the brand.

That’s when the disconnect, the inconsistencies, even the contradictions start to appear.

This is why spending time on remembering why the business was created in the first place, recording the core beliefs that drove the creation of the business, and identifying the core values that influenced the way the founders went about doing business is so important.

Not only does it ensure consistency over time, irrespective of staff turnover, it anchors the brand in authenticity and gives it its purpose.

Purpose doesn’t have to be lofty to be of value, as long as it’s truthful, shared, understood and manifested across the whole company. Customers have a myriad of needs to fulfil.

So there is no better way to define and review the purpose than focusing on the customer.

What problem/need is the business/brand trying to solve for its customers?

What does the business/brand offer that makes it different and appealing?

How does the business, through the brand, offer a congruent experience to its customers, across all touch points?

Any business/brand that cannot answer those fundamental questions and keeps business and brand strategies apart, are doing so at their peril.

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