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On unprecedented purpose: how brands must return to what matters to determine what’s next

On unprecedented purpose: how brands must return to what matters to determine what’s next

By: Allyssa Kennedy, Julie Levine & Vaughn Allen

This may be the understatement of the year: the global health crisis, our struggling economy and deepening divisions about race and social justice over the past several months has changed the way we work, learn and engage with others. As the term “unprecedented times” proliferates daily news coverage, brands have used it to explain rapid shifts, or dare we say, pivots, to actions and content to better fit what the moment demands. 

Context is now a major consideration when creating or publishing any content or action. 

However, while some brands struggle to know how to move forward, others seem to thrive through one crisis after another. Think Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream brand that issued one of the most powerful statements and calls for action in the wake of George Floyd’s death.  Or Patagonia, which put “Vote the assholes out” on clothing tags in support of efforts to combat climate change. 

It might not make sense for every brand to engage in issues in this way. But the point is, these brands didn’t frenetically modify their behavior in the face of a daily-changing global landscape. Their actions were in line with their existing points of view — in line with who they are. 

They acted on their brand purpose. 

No longer an abstract thought or cause marketing gesture, purpose is now a necessity.

A purpose statement crafted with just the right words is like poetry — though powerless if it’s just a statement on the wall. Invest in the time your brand needs to create and fuel the kind of purpose that guides your entire organization. Every day. Every decision. Every pivot. 

In the past, many brands based purpose on a functional benefit. Purpose was rigid, solely based on the product or service provided, and it likely never lived outside the brand map. 

And although we’ve known that purpose constructed with intent is not only meaningful, but also tangible and operable, it is now also vital, as unprecedented times become the new normal. A brand needs actionable purpose to guide what it says and how it behaves, both proactively and reactively. 

“Become human-centric, and it sounds like a slogan: Care about people beyond the way they interact with your product. Look at all circles of concerns in people’s lives and ask: how can I help?” says Esi Eggleston Bracey, COO and EVP,  Beauty and Personal Care, Unilever, on finding authentic brand purpose.

Today’s consumers expect brands to stand for something.

What’s more, modern consumers have high expectations of the products, tools and services they seek out. If something doesn’t seamlessly integrate into how they live their lives, they won’t have the patience for it. These same expectations also impact how those products, tools and services, and the brands that provide them, align with their values. That means the traditional best practice of avoiding risk by sitting out uncomfortable conversations has become the risky path.

When people increasingly want to know where you stand in culture, they’re more likely to see it as cynical or at least weak if brands refuse to say — or act. As they demand change in the world around them, they’re making their voices heard with their wallets as well as their votes and voices.

“The brand is an expression of the whole company . . . it's not just about an image or cultural relevance. Today, people are looking behind the brand, behind the product and asking what’s happening at the company,” says Frank Cooper III, Senior Managing Director & Global Chief Marketing Officer, BlackRock, Inc.

Our modern consumer research shows two-thirds of consumers look for products that help them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life. They want the brands they support to be a reflection of who they are. It’s not about making them feel good about your brand, it’s about making them feel good about themselves. And whatever you do, don’t try to fool them. Consumers are professionals at sniffing out inauthentic brand behaviors. 

Bottom line: your words and actions must align with a greater purpose and consumer benefit than the function your product or service serves. 

Don’t wait for the next crisis to define your purpose. By that time, it's already too late.

Although a purpose is useful for reacting to the needs of today, it serves brands better to think about how their actions can propel them to be a successful purpose-led brand in the future. 

Consider this: Purpose-led businesses have increased their brand value by 175% over the past 12 years; 105 percentage points faster than low-purpose competitors, according to Kantar Consulting’s 2020 Purpose Research. 

These growth numbers are not surprising. Companies that make purpose central to their business and embed it across the spectrum of internal and external actions are known to have stronger innovation strategies, higher employee retention, supply chain efficiencies and greater stakeholder trust. When purpose is actionable, it is a business advantage. 

It’s true a purpose can be a tool for organizational efficiency. And it can have words that move and inspire. But even more so, in a world where the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty, having principles, a point of view and an actionable purpose is essential for survival.

Your consumers expect it.


Barkley US

Nov 04, 2020

filed under:
Brand Culture, Marketing, Millennial, Modern Consumer, Purpose, Research

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Brand Culture, Culture, Diversity + Inclusion, Gen Z, Marketing, Millennial, Modern Consumer, Purpose, Sustainability, Whole Brand
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