Brand with a porpoise: The importance of an authentic brand purpose

I attended design school with the late Brent Chambers, a great guy and the talented owner of Flux Animation until his premature death late last year. Back then, he was constantly sketching people and thoughts as they came to him. One memorable example was captioned “man with a porpoise”. The man was clearly struggling to carry the slippery creature in his arms. A small group of us found this to be immensely funny.

This sketch comes to mind as more marketers and their agencies work hard to add some sort of ‘purpose’ to their brand.

Purpose should be the reason an organisation exists, evidenced best by the products or services for which it’s known – or wants to be known. It may need re-awakening and marketing (internally and externally) but it needs to be authentic. Understand what you help achieve within your customers’ lives and worlds, then you can give them more of it.

Unfortunately, the variant of purpose that’s recently become popular globally – thanks in part to an increasingly confused conglomeration of creativity, business, social activation, technology and awards called Cannes – is something else altogether.

Corporates everywhere are now rushing to grab hold of a big, and ideally controversial, social issue and bolt it on to their brand.

Yes, profitable businesses should generously help people achieve and sustain a better quality of life on this planet. We’re a social species. We survive by looking after each other. But is this brand purpose? Or is it corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

Consumers must become increasingly cynical as more corporates confuse the two, and use marketing and advertising to create a thinly substantiated perception of caring. In the worst cases, brands are marketing ‘save the world’ brand initiatives that are more than cancelled out by the much larger negative impacts of their daily business operations.

Marketing is a perception game. And originality or novelty can be very powerful. But do today’s creatively novel cause-based campaigns have long-term strategic merit? As the novelty wears off, consumers will be wary of CSR being willfully confused with brand purpose and used to distinctively position an entire brand.

Numerous organisations are genuinely dedicated to helping with our big social issues. Most notably, governments. And they never, ever have enough money to do it.

In his 2016 presentation, ‘Marketing Deconstructed (cutting the bullshit and getting back to the essential strategic tools)’, Mark Ritson proposes a new system for measuring CSR. He calls it Trustworthy Accounting Exchange, i.e. TAX, concluding simply, “Pay your fucking tax”. Humorous, but quite serious when you see the top-ranked “most socially responsible corporations”, compared with the trifling amounts each pays in tax.

Alex M H Smith of Basic Arts reminds us what purpose was supposed to mean in a recent Campaign article titled “Has Keith Weed (Unilever’s highly respected CMO) steered us in the wrong direction on brand purpose?”

“It all comes down to definition. In short, purpose no longer means “the reason something exists”. Instead, it has been recast as a synonym for ‘social responsibility’.”

This isn’t semantics. Many marketers and their agencies have rightly put considerable effort into helping organisations consider and articulate the reason they exist – beyond making money and delivering profit to shareholders. Probably the best explanation and justification for this approach comes from Jim Collins, author of management book, ‘Good to Great, Why some companies make the leap and others don’t.’ In a Harvard Business Review paper titled “Building your Company’s Vision”, Collins defines core purpose as “an organisation’s fundamental reason for being”.

He describes “The Five Whys”, a method for figuring out an organisation’s purpose. Start with what it is that an organisation does, then ask why that matters. Keep asking “why” until you get to the answer. It’s a great exercise. But there are some important guiding principles necessary to avoid the “bullshit” factor.

Collins said we should ask “Why is that important?” We need to ask “Why is that important to our customers?”

Done well, the approach can help with core purpose, brand position, or a campaign proposition. For example, a business sells a customer an electric drill. Why does the customer need that drill? To drill holes. Why do they need to drill a hole? Because they want to put up a bookshelf. Why do they need to put up a bookshelf? Because they want their books accessible, or visible. Why do they want to display their books? (Many options…) Because it shows other people who they are. To create a nurturing environment for their family…

With Mitre 10, we know there’s a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from completing a job and doing it well. Which is important both personally and socially. That’s a powerful human insight that’s also directly relevant for the DIY category. So it makes sense to align Mitre 10’s purpose, and offering, with that idea.

But go too far up the ‘why’ ladder and you leave the organisation’s focused expert reputation behind. And all ladders ultimately lead to the same two places: make the world better or make life better.

It’s not the lack of differentiation that’s the problem. As Collins says: “The role of core ideology is to guide and inspire, not to differentiate.” But if your purpose is in the realms of ‘making life better’, it’s quite useless. It’s too broad to help you decide which product, service or initiative you should invest in.

In Marketing Deconstructed, Ritson starts by introducing ten modern marketing beliefs, saying “half of them I’m going to send to marketing hell because they’re useless”. He then points out that a survey of Australian marketers finds brand purpose to be most “useful”. Ritson, however, sends it to hell.

He has fun ridiculing Starbucks’ lofty mission: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.”

The examples and problems he raises come down to either marketers confusing purpose with CSR, or laddering up so high they’re disconnected from what they do for their customers. That’s not because there’s an issue with purpose. Used properly, it’s more useful than ever.

If Mitre 10 simply focused on selling product, rather than helping the customer achieve an end goal, we wouldn’t have developed ‘Easy As’. And that’s been a powerful differentiator that has, of course, helped sell a lot of product.

A more recent test for the “usefulness” of brand purpose has been Mercury’s re-branding. Energy is a unique brand marketing challenge. It’s also the ideal trap for those prone to climbing too high. Electricity literally powers most modern technology. It makes lives better. It makes the world better. The challenge is to articulate a more useful purpose that’s directly relevant to the category and customers, and serves as criteria for all brand activity.

The answer was very simple and easily understood: “To inspire New Zealanders to enjoy energy in more wonderful ways.” For the brand re-launch we chose electric bikes as the most real and accessible example – an invisible product and brand purpose made tangible.

The re-branded business is doing extremely well. Customer retention is at a category-leading high, and huge numbers of New Zealanders have been motivated to get on e-bikes. That’s a result that Mercury is so proud of that a second campaign has been created to celebrate the success of the first.

So which is more important? Business objectives or brand purpose? When you get it right they’re the same thing. Importantly, Mercury’s purpose has been embraced well beyond marketing, and well beyond one year. A clear brand purpose goes deep and long. And that is very useful.

So, mixing metaphors, let’s stop struggling with awkward slippery purposes that have been pulled out of their natural environment. You grab attention for a while, but it’s ultimately unnatural. Instead, create your own banner that all your audiences are happy to march under. 

David Thomason is the chief brand officer at FCB. 

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