purpose-driven branding

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Simon Sinek famously said. Marketers are all taught to define a “brand promise”. The deeper opportunity is to understand our “brand purpose” – an ideal that drives everything a brand does.

Purpose is increasingly part of a marketer’s vocabulary, yet many brands take a tick-box approach. They may confuse purpose with signing on to a cause-marketing event. They may attempt to ladder up their brand benefits, yet come across as shallow as a bumper sticker.

Former P&G CMO Jim Stengel, along with Milward Brown, studied 50 purpose-driven brands. Last year, he released a study that showed the brands with the strongest brand ideals not only impacted people’s lives, they outperformed the market.

Jim Stengel defined a brand ideal as “the brand’s inspirational reason for being. It explains why the brand exists and the impact it seeks to make in the world. A brand ideal actively aims to improve the quality of people’s lives. It creates a meaningful goal for the brand – a goal that aligns employees and the organization to better serve customers … Some companies are very explicit about their ideals, like Zappos – their ideal of delivering happiness is on their boxes, all over their offices, even on t-shirts employees wear. Other brands, like Louis Vuitton, are more implicit about it. But all their actions – throughout their products, stores and communications – amplify their ideal to luxuriously accentuate the journey of life.”

One of these 50 brands in Jim’s study was method, where I spent 5 years. Every bottle was printed with the line, “made by and for people against dirty”. “People against dirty” literally fueled everything that we did. It reminded us that our mission every day was the make people’s homes (and the world) a cleaner place. It also blurred the lines between us and the people we served.

The challenge for any brand, large or small, is to define their purpose, and then live up to it every day. I’m interested in how you’re seeing purpose-driven branding in practice — great examples and misfires.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Lisa says

    The best example of purpose branding is Avon. Their product line, targeted to women, deliver benefits that help make a woman feel beautiful inside and out. All efforts are focused on that. Their tremendous efforts to raise money and awareness to help prevent/find a cure for breast cancer couldn’t be more consistent.

  2. Evan says

    When I listened to you speak at IMW in NY a few weeks ago, I saw much semblance between your message and Stengel’s book Grow. It’s a good read.

  3. Jim Signorelli says

    There’s a big difference between a cause and a claim.
    You can make a claim, but you have to live a cause.

  4. M says

    My favorite misfire was the Gatorade “that’s G” campaign of 07/08. Having been there prior, I knew the once-inspiring brand purpose was about fueling athletes. In need of some volume momentum, a new senior marketer came in and declared was of the highest order, “enabling the triumph of the human spirit.” It was a confusing over-reach of a brand who didn’t understand its own roots and capabilities. The lightning bolt was minimized in favor of the letter G, reminiscent of a Sesame Street alphabet segment. The purpose has been restored, now “win from within,” and refocused on its athletes, which is very refreshing.

    Nice post. Good fodder for essence exercise two of our teams are doing right now…

  5. Kevin says

    I love the idea, but in practice it seems to be a tack-on as this cartoon highlights or ladders to some much higher order Maslow need that lacks a real connection to the brand. As I understand it, it’s about finding the unique space where your brand can credibly ladder into a higher purpose in a way that creates value for your company and target. Then these purpose-driven values drive your product development and communications so it’s credible.

    Out of all the examples I’ve seen, few seem to be tied into the brand in a credible way that supports the brand’s overall value proposition. One could argue Method does do it well, as does Patagonia, Zappos, maybe Southwest, Google. But Pampers? Amazon? Blackberry? Visa? Many of Stengel’s examples seem to be a bit of a stretch. I would love to see an example of an older CPG company like Campbell’s Soup. Anyone have a great one?

  6. Alan Bergstrom says

    Cause marketing can be such a mis-employed technique these days. At the risk of sounding heartless, but also being honest, I suspect many companies (as you so artistically demonstrate) just grab a “cause” in an attempt to say to the public “look at us, we are empathetic to (fill in the blank), and are such good corporate citizens. Because you (customer) are as well, we are therefore kindred spirits and of like minds. So, buy our product”. Many companies are using causes just for the sake of selling more product and attempting to create false affinities with their target audiences.

    Unfortunately, the long-term effect could be skepticism and a lack of trust for those companies who are truly committed to real causes. Just like any other marketing tactic, the buyer eventually must do their own due diligence to determine if the commitment is real and the brand can be trusted. Let the buyer beware.

  7. Miki Reilly-Howe says

    I think a good example of a purpose-driven brand is Luvs diapers. I worked peripherally on this brand for over a decade, and it’s been through some growing pains. At the heart of the brand has always been the savvy mom. Her journey of motherhood is not posed. She is as real as it gets. As she’s gained experience, she finds ways to be savvy about her budget, her parenting and regaining her identity.

    I haven’t been involved with the brand for a few years, but I applaud the team today. The recent campaign is a great example of a brand living up to its purpose. It’s broader message about the very real journey moms experience is winning fans. As it should.

    Check it out – if you have kids, you’ll certainly recognize a few of your own experiences.


  8. Nate Challen says

    I believe in the ideal concept, the challenge is making it truly central to a brand or business if it wasn’t the the focus to begin with. It’s a painstaking process that requires complete buy-in and a commitment far longer than the average brand managers tenure. Often it might including sacrificing the bottom line in the short term to grow the top line in the long term.

    I spend 4 years on Aveeno, a brand fortunate to land in the intersection of several leading skin care trends in the 90s and 00s (Proven natural ingredients + Dermatologist recommended), despite having started that way 65 years earlier. The reality is that Aveeno was a brand built on fantastic product features, not necessarily ideals, but as more and more competitors began offering similar features it became important that the brand stand for more.

    Initially there were false starts that felt more like green-washing, than ideals, but ultimately Active Naturals, which started simply as a description of the ingredients, has come to also represent that brand and it’s users active engagemet in the community. The brand team now sponsors and participates in regular community service projects and recognizes community heros.

    It’s been a multi-year process that has outlasted my own involvement with the brand, and the transformation is far from complete, however the progress is showing that shifting to an ideal based brand or business can be achieved if you set your sights on the right target and apply consistent focus and effort.

  9. Shaun Smith says

    When we did the research for our book ‘Bold- how to be brave in business and win’ we found that the brands that are transforming markets do three things: They ‘Stand Up, Stand Out and Stand Firm’. Standing Up is about having a purpose beyond profit, Standing Out is dramatising that purpose through the experience they deliver every day and Standing Firm is about creating a culture that sustains it long term. A terrific example of this is Burberry whose purpose is to ‘Democratise Luxury’ and they have done this by using social media and digital channels to take fashion from the catwalk, where it is experienced by an elite few, to the web where their followers now number 15 million.

  10. Mark Barden says

    Hello there Tom. Nice post. As I know you know the original purveyors of purpose are the Challenger Brands. As Adam Morgan (my partner) described in the book Eating The Big Fish, Leaders win by “mirroring” the wants of the consumer very well. They squat on the biggest need states. Sometimes niches can be found around this for the #2 or 3 brand. But another way to effectively compete is to lead with your own beliefs as a brand and connect with a tribe who shares those values, helps advocate for you, and introduces a different driver of choice into the category that the Leader cannot simply copy. This idea, what we call The Lighthouse Identity Model, was always key for Challengers (like Method, Innocent, Jet Blue) but now that more people/consumers are showing interest in spending their dollars behind brands with a sense of purpose, everyone’s on the damn bandwagon. For me one of the big differences here though is between belief and purpose, as Nate suggests. Simply having a purpose statement doesn’t make one purpose-driven. The hard work is all ahead in putting that purpose to work, and woe betide you if you’re not the real deal. As Dave Hieatt of howies and now Hiut Denim says, “beware the man who believes in something.” The right question is a subtly different one. Not ‘What’s the purpose?’, but ‘what do really believe in?’. Make it personal, or connected to some truth. At least that’s what true Challengers do and why I believe the good ones will still whip all the Johnnie-come-lately purpose hawkers. Or at least find a place to stand from where they can make a good living.

  11. chris says

    The biggest issue with ‘defining the purpose’ for brands is its an after thought: Ideally the cause exists first, then a product or brand is built around that to solve the problem (this is about using capitalism to drive something else, a cause or goal).

    The issue big brand have is they already have a product, some dull washing up powder that no one cares about for example, and they try and tie a cause to it to make it more desirable. The problem is this is the wrong way around and its obvious when you see it on the shelf. The cause or goal of the brands in this situation is really to ‘sell more of X’, or you could say ‘pay for another car for the CEO’, whatever. But its nothing to do with the cause.

    Example: If P&G wanted to provide clean water for a million people, they could simply use all their $2.57bn profit to give everyone clean water. If that was the cause, then they could solve it. But its not, its to make loads of cash. Theres nothing wrong with that but pretending that washing up powder has something to do with a cause feels as apathetic as the cartoon above makes out.

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