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The Purposelessness of Brand Purpose

By Abby Batcheller

Amidst today’s prevalence of wokeness and greenwashing among brands, it’s easy to forget that the basic idea of a brand having a “purpose” wasn’t even a thing just ten years ago. Before that, marketers claimed to be seeking an emotional connection between their brands and consumers. And before that, it was differentiation and RTB’s. Purpose, the strategy du-jour, is actually a rather new tool for branding. It is, however, in many cases, just as flimsy a tool as its predecessors. 

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign could be considered the catalyst to this purpose movement for brands. Although obvious in retrospect, no brand had quite articulated that being okay with how you looked naturally was good. Arguably, it set the brand apart from its competitors and helped it be more successful.

The real problem, however, seems to start in the wake of the Real Beauty campaign. Marketers, anxious to get their own seemingly altruistic moment in the spotlight, start falling over each other to convert their brands into “purpose-led” brands. Maybe they were trying to find the same relative success that Dove had found. Perhaps it was all just an attempt to alleviate them from their guilt of working for corporations trying to make more money; that for some reason, having a purpose made what they did more noble.

Mark&Spencer’s LGBT Sandwich from 2019

We don’t really need to rehash Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad or even Mark&Spencers attempt to support Pride Month (really). Unfortunately, examples abound, and even more at the strategic level, the number of Brand Positioning documents we’ve seen that are riddled with generic-sounding “good” purposes is truly shocking.

You could (justifiably!) look at these examples and think “purpose” is a desperate attempt to connect with culture but that it ultimately fails to connect to marketing effectiveness. But a few brands buck this trend. And no – I’m not talking about the TOMS and Warby’s of the world who founded their entire brand on the premise of doing good. I’m talking about brands who started with the basics of what they were really good at and joined the purpose movement – AND found some success with doing so.

Take Nike for instance. Their Kaepernick ad was one of the most talked-about ads of the decade. Yet before 2018, Nike’s focus had primarily been on their products and their athletes (their famous internal strat line, “Every body is an athlete,” was the closest they got to a “good” play until then). So why did Nike’s sales see a spike, and continued rise, after this ad? And more importantly, why did consumers think Nike had a space to play in the purpose realm?

The answer lies in distinctiveness.

Nike’s Kaepernick ad was a cultural relevance play, true; but had it only been a relevance play, we may not have seen the sales result – or quite frankly, the virality – of its campaign. The key for Nike was leveraging a truth about their brand that had consistently been a part of their communications for decades. Nike is about using the power of sport to move the world forward.

It wasn’t a climate change activist they highlighted. Nor a presidential candidate or even a hometown hero.

It was an athlete. An athlete who, in the years prior, had been at the center of the NFL’s greatest controversy since the concussion scandals. An athlete who Nike saw as someone using sport to move the world forward. An athlete who, unbeknownst to most everyone, would be quietly financially supported by Nike while he fought his fight in the NFL. An athlete who would go on to become the face of Nike’s distinctiveness in the modern era.

Athletes using the power of sport to move the world forward.

REI closes on the biggest shopping day of the year

REI didn’t start as a purpose-driven brand. It was a supplier of outdoor sporting and adventure gear. But when Black Friday sales numbers reached staggeringly high levels – and the country was rushing out of Thanksgiving dinner to get in line at stores to buy ridiculous amounts of things they didn’t need – they saw an opportunity to leverage their distinctiveness for a culturally relevant play.

A reminder to everyone to get back outdoors.

REI announced they would be closing their stores for the biggest day in retail and encouraged everyone to “Opt Outside” instead. This ignited a social movement to push back on the culture of excessive shopping, but more importantly for REI, by joining the relevance play through one of their distinctive brand equities – the outdoors – sales saw a large uptick and consumers recognized them as the leader in prioritizing the outdoors.

I’m not saying “purpose” is bad. Arguably, having a purpose could be a good thing for any company to have. An internal north star and core belief system to guide the enterprise to be socially responsible. But for an externally facing purpose to be useful for the brand, it must leverage and reinforce the brand’s distinctiveness. Yet another beauty brand whose purpose is to celebrate women’s authentic beauty, in other words, is obviously a fail. As is any other outdoor company that closes on Black Friday. Unless a brand’s purpose makes the brand distinctive, it is utterly…well, purposeless.  

(Keep in mind that all the views expressed in this post and on this site are personal views. They don’t represent the views of Yum! or any other person or organization except the authors themselves.)

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