Purpose: The Modern Brand's Most Essential Tool
Few facets of marketing have evolved as much as "purpose" marketing has over the past five years. What started out as a CSR checkbox from the corporate affairs department has accelerated into a demand from consumers to hear from CEOs and the founders themselves how brands embed purpose at their core and what actions they take. We used to talk about brands with purpose. Now a brand must be purpose-driven to earn the respect of consumers.
Nearly every guest in the most recent season of my podcast, The Beautiful Thinkers Project, brought up purpose during our conversations. And the conversations we had about purpose were not just about moving a business forward. The topic was a personal one for these leaders. They were passionate about it. And they talked about how consumers and employees alike seek brands that reflect their values.
This sentiment applied to startups like East Fork Pottery and Impossible Foods, to mid-sized brands like New Balance and all the way up to Fortune 100 companies like Unilever and one of its biggest brands, Dove. In fact, Dove serves as one of our greatest case studies of purpose-driven brand success as it is now not just a soap brand. Its Self-Esteem Project is the largest provider of self-esteem and body confidence education in the world after its 2004 campaign evolved into a worldwide movement.
Purpose can mean creating and contributing to a local community, upskilling employees, creating social equity, or saving the planet. No matter how big or small purpose is, it must demonstrate impact not in what a brand says, but what it does.
Those conversations with brand leaders about infusing purpose into your brand resulted in a few key takeaways:
Purpose can make a big impact on a small scale.
East Fork Pottery wants to bring back manufacturing and elevate public perception of a blue collar job by taking a page out of many tech companies' approach of providing a culture with amenities.
"Offering a good manufacturing job is important to us. We came to this as artists and writers, not businesspeople. So there has to be more to it than just the bottom line. We are motivated to keep offering better pay and better benefits as we grow. We look at how we can make what is typically a blue collar job not feel blue collar all the time. We have a chef that cooks staff meals for everybody in the company twice a week. We'll do it every day when we can. We want to offer childcare as soon as we can." —Alex Matisse, founder of East Fork Pottery
Alex understands that change doesn't have to be sweeping to be impactful. They're focusing on their footprint in North Carolina.
"We have a values team that focuses on who we're supporting and why we're supporting them. We like to work with smaller grassroots organizations where the smaller dollars that we're able to raise go further. We're not giving away millions of dollars. We're giving away $25 or $50,000, but that can be a game-changer for a small nonprofit doing really important, big work in their community. It's part of our DNA at this point."
Purpose should evolve with the brand.
Dove's engagement with purpose for the past two decades has resulted in credibility so strong that it's able to respond to what's going on in the world and create systemic change.
"When you have a purpose and you know what you stand for, it's easier to pivot and change the brand narrative to reflect the current cultural context. After the Black Lives Matter events we expanded our commitment to fight systemic racism via the Crown Coalition to advance anti-hair discrimination legislation." —Alessandro Manfredi, EVP of Dove at Unilever
Purpose was once seen as more of a communications tool. But Dove shows that when executed well, purpose can be the engine for business growth.
"At the very beginning, there were not a lot of brands or companies that had a purpose. It was really the projection of the values of a few people. Today, if you say it cynically, it's a little bit like a marketing tool. But without being cynical, consumers have changed. They require companies and brands to go beyond a profit to have a positive social impact. I like to work on brands that have a social impact, and I believe that you can combine doing good and doing good business. We are proving it now. At Unilever, the brands that have a purpose at the heart of the business model are growing twice as much as the other brands."
Purpose must be more than just a brand thing.
In my discussion with Alessandro, we also talked about how brand managers must think differently today about purpose. Purpose is not a brand asset, it is a brand mission.
"There are people on our team who look at the problem of body confidence less from a business innovation point of view, but more like if they were an NGO. And if you've got an NGO, you think of body confidence like a disease, because it actually has been declared as a disease."
This brand mission can be a powerful driver of employee loyalty as much as it is consumer loyalty. Dove's commitment to purpose is one reason for Alessandro's long tenure at Dove; he's stayed at the company for almost 16 years in an industry where a CMO's average tenure is 36 months.
"I am quite value-driven, and the company shares my values, especially on purpose, which is absolutely critical."
Purpose can inspire other people to partner with your brand.
Chris Davis, CMO of New Balance, has seen the lift his brand has experienced by moving from a typical athletic brand sponsorship model towards partnerships with individuals who share their values.
"With every ambassador that New Balance works with globally and partners with globally, we mandate that there's community integration, whether it's something global or local. There's a component where they have to give back to charity with time, or product, or financial resources. It's absolutely integral into enabling the brand to work in the community in the right way and elevating the partner's persona in the community the right way."
"We call this a co-authored approach, meaning we're expecting a tremendous amount of off-the-court or off-the-field work from our ambassadors. And we will implement a tremendous amount of work in elevating their platform as well."
This approach can create some discomfort when the brand is challenged to walk the walk.
"Coco Gauff is one of my favorite ambassadors. During all of the moments of social injustice that occurred not only in the United States, but globally, Coco really wanted to utilize her platform, her persona, and her voice to stand up for what she believed was right. And she asked us to partner with her on that. And part of our responsibility as a brand is to amplify the messaging and the voices of our athletes, but also to stand up for what we believe is right. This is an area where Coco challenged us to get better in this field, whereas Jaden Smith challenged us to get better in the field of sustainability. We accept those challenges and then utilize our platform, our creativity, and our scale to amplify their messages. And it's really an opportunity for all parties to improve and stand up for what we believe is right."
Purpose should be a fundamental part of who you are.
New Balance has been active in the community for years without publicly giving itself credit at every turn. Chris is just the latest member of his family to run the company with purpose at its core.
"My mom really embraced the idea of corporate responsibility and corporate giving decades ago before it was a sexy term in our industry. She set up our foundation, which is rooted in combating childhood obesity in underserved communities. Promoting healthy activity and education on diet is something where we've invested literally a hundred million dollars over the last couple decades."
Purpose provides a pathway for the consumer to become part of your mission.
Impossible Foods has an audacious mission to minimize the environmental impact of the meat industry. Its team was committed to convincing consumers to make different choices without guilting them into changing their behavior.
"We never want to tell someone that they're doing something wrong. We never want to demonize behavior. It's about presenting a solution that at scale can result in enormous environmental savings. But we don't expect the consumer to know or care about that." —Rebekah Moses, head of impact strategy at Impossible Foods
"The private sector has to provide the toolkits for it. It's not enough to say, 'okay, well, we're going to reduce our own emissions.' Private sector has to do what Impossible Foods has done. Their business is going to be the vehicle for change because there's only so much you can do in terms of policy without the right toolkit."
But the private sector can't do all the work.
"Raising consciousnesses is a really difficult thing. That work is really for NGOs, not for brands or the private sector. What we can do is come up with solutions, really excellent products that achieve the goals that we want without asking anything in terms of education, awareness, or a preconceived notion of what sustainability is."
Purpose can start now.
What about brands that were not founded on purpose? Is it too late to develop one? Not according to Tom Herbst, former CMO of The North Face, who believes that all brands can find their purpose.
"Purpose lies at the intersection between what you do best as a company and what needs you can serve in the world. If you can find where those two things overlap, that's your purpose. And it's important to add: Not every brand's purpose needs to save the world."
Whether you're saving the environment or propping up your community, purpose can't be an afterthought and it can't be a gloss that you apply to your brand to make your product or service more attractive to a consumer. And purpose needs to start on the inside and permeate every corner of the business. Your brand doesn't have to save the world, it just has to believe in something and act on it.