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Why marketers need to rethink 'brand purpose'

There has been a lot of discussion about ‘brand purpose’ in recent months. Debates have raged in social media and in the press about whether brand purpose is a valid marketing strategy and whether it really delivers results. 

But alongside the marketing argument, a debate far deeper than that has been raging. Sparked by the Business Roundtable changing their definition of the Purpose of a Corporation, and fuelled by amongst others the work of Colin Mayer and the British Academy.


They’ve shown Purpose to be rooted at the very core of a business. Purpose is about a company’s reason for existence, how it operates, how it treats its staff and customers and how it goes to market. Branding and marketing are the activation of that purpose

We’ve seen countless examples over the years of companies getting it wrong. Companies that behave in one way but try to market themselves in another. Companies that associate themselves with good causes while their business practices leave too much to be desired when it comes to corporate social responsibility. These companies have rightly been accused of purpose-washing

Conversely, I first saw the power a purposeful business can have for marketing when I began working in the marketing department at the Cooperative Bank. At the turn of the millennium, a small bank was able to use its strong ethical stance as fuel for marketing that punched well above its weight. It left a mark on me and years later inspired me to co-found Revolt so I could help other companies to follow their lead, and avoid the ‘purpose gap’ between what the public expect and what they actually experience. 

At Revolt, we believe there is a framework of seven principles that help companies to bridge the purpose gap – to have a purpose that is both about driving positive change in the world while leveraging commercial advantage for the business. 

Clearly defining the purpose and the businesses role in reaching the ‘destination’ is critical. From our research over 101 of the world’s leading companies - across 12 categories -  we found that although the majority of companies still have a purpose focused on what they do as business, 41% now have a purpose aimed at having a positive impact on our lives. This is an increase of 14% over the past three years. 

But a defined purpose is only the start. To have any impact, a business must employ a roadmap that enables the whole business to play a part in that journey. We’ve seen how Adidas has created a ‘family’ structure uniting its brands under its ‘Through Sport We have the Power to Change Lives’ purpose, whilst Mars Petcare have made huge strides towards ‘a better world for pets’ by switching the focus from their business units, to the key pillars of activity it takes to get there.

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With these in place, companies are rightly using their purpose as central pillar of their marketing and advertising strategy. Having the right platform is critical as it provides the creative glue to communicate purpose and purpose-related activities. We found that 65% of businesses now communicate their purpose externally and 27% are using paid media to do this. 

Tools and systems are not everybody’s favourite topic, but they are vital for a company to be Purpose driven and not merely Purpose infused. Learning, building and measuring are the things that sustain a purpose and ensure impact. 

Increasingly, companies are focusing their purpose activities on ‘missions’. We’ve seen P&G look for policy shifts on racism and Lego’s quest to get more people to recycle. We found that over 30% of companies now look to build their reputations through a branded mission.

And even when a business has not opted for a mission, having a clear purpose enables it to take a clear position. Increasingly purpose-related communication is being shaped by the position businesses are taking in reaction to key world events, such as the death of George Floyd or Covid 19. 

Finally, we have the importance of alliances. Alliances with staff, brands and partners are crucial building blocks for a purpose’s momentum within the company. Forward-thinking companies are turning their internal campaigns into external reputation builders through their earned (Starbucks), owned (Adidas) and paid for media (Walmart). 

Purpose is about plotting the future, then working back to build what’s needed to get there. For HR, it’s the opportunity to move beyond employee compliance to employee engagement. For Corporate Affairs, it’s the opportunity to move from risk management to reputation building. For marketing, it’s the opportunity to move from having a campaign to having an impact. 

You can read the full Bridging The Gap report here.

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