How brand purpose lost its way
There’s a rampant belief among today’s marketers that a successful brand requires an overarching brand purpose. But there’s scant evidence to support that belief. What exactly is brand purpose? By aligning a company with a role in contributing to a better world, it allows a company to aspire to a higher standard than a brand mission or brand positioning. Among the most cited examples are:
Dove: Achieving real beauty, building self-esteem
Coca-Cola: To inspire moments of optimism and happiness
Apple: To empower creative exploration and self-expression
Proponents of brand purpose often illustrate their point with a Ted Talk by Simon Sinek about starting with the “why” behind the brand. That talk opens by comparing the Wright brothers to Samuel Langley. As presented, Langley had all the financing, credentials and official support while the Wright brothers had only their inspiring vision. Langley wanted to build an airplane, while the Wright brothers wanted to change the world through flight. Their deeper “why” won out over Langley’s shallow “what.”
It’s a stirring presentation with a significant flaw: Sinek obviously couldn’t speak with the parties involved, and the documentary evidence of a higher calling is thin. The correspondence the Wrights left behind offers the same generalities about human flight that many people of the time used, and dealt mostly with engineering issues. There is as little evidence to support that the passionate “why” fueled the Wright brothers’ success, as there is to support that purpose-driven brands outperform peers. There are at least three flaws to the most common claims.
First, they speak to correlation not cause. As Nate Silver notes, ice cream sales are positively correlated with—but don’t cause—forest fires.
Second, determining which brands have a purpose and which don’t is subjective. So it’s easy to skew the data intentionally or unintentionally.
Third, because brand purpose is a relatively new trend, it’s statistically more likely that younger, higher-growth companies have them.
This doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t have a higher-order, strategic objective or that companies don’t have an obligation to be good corporate citizens. Brand purpose adherents go beyond this, insisting that every brand must have a social goal in order to grow. But a quick examination of the core tenets behind this assertion don’t stand up to scrutiny.
As strategic guide
In a Harvard Business Review article, one CMO said that “purpose streamlines decision-making.” But most brand purpose statements are so lofty they lack any useful applicability. Coca-Cola’s purpose is to inspire moments of optimism and happiness. How would that guide new product development? Anything that tastes good, feels good or looks good would qualify. It allows for comfy sweaters, pets and movies with happy endings. Generalities are poor tools for strategic direction.
As core values
Brand purpose is meant to serve as an internal driver of company values. Facebook’s purpose is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” However, Facebook and other forms of social media are more often cited as a source of cultural and political divisiveness. Many would argue that Facebook has prospered by defying the values inherent in its purpose rather than fulfilling them.
As brand story
We all like brand stories, be it Levi’s jeans born in the Old West or a French widow creating Veuve Clicquot champagnes. That a product or service came to be just because people were willing to pay for it is dismissed as uninteresting. Crafting a brand purpose statement onto an existing brand undercuts the authenticity marketers are trying to obtain.
Marketers need to embrace the less sexy but more proven path to brand success by developing the three constants that drive successful brands: relevance, value and differentiation. Brand purpose is one way to bring differentiation to a brand, but it is not the only way.