You’d be hard-pressed to pick up a drinks bottle these days without it proclaiming how much good it was doing for you and the environment.
Consumers increasingly seek to buy from companies with a commitment to making the world a better place. A report from marketing agency Edelman earlier this year suggested that consumers seek relationships with brands that reflect their values and create positive change in the world.
But Jim Prior, CEO of WPP design agencies The Partners and Lambie-Nairn isn’t convinced this is a new thing. "It’s something of a fad, describing purpose as the new branding," he says, "but the fundamentals are the same as they have ever been. Good branding has always been about building around a strong core idea."
But purpose is definitely a conversation that has come up in the last two years, says Prior. "One might argue that a lot of large organisations are now led by people who grew up in the 60s and there is a greater willingness to engage with it." Moreover, "Post-financial crisis the social conscience of a business is higher on the corporate agenda."
However, he adds, "for a lot of organisations it’s certainly just become a way to wrap up a conversation around branding in a language that people respond well to."
But making your purpose core to your branding is a smart strategy, when it is done well, says Isla Wilson, founder of business development company Rubystar Associates. But, she says, "It’s worth thinking carefully about what you do and why in order to make the most of this approach. For example, many small businesses employ local people and use local suppliers for a range of good reasons but may not promote this as part of the value they add to their local communities." She says, "Many businesses assume that customers will understand the ‘given good’ of what they do (i.e, customers will understand the benefits of buying from small businesses or from local suppliers) but usually you will benefit from being very clear about the impact you want people to appreciate."
But the purpose you 'choose' has to be authentic, says Wilson, "Grand words about how committed you are to your staff will quickly damage your reputation if it turns out you are paying them below minimum wage."
In defining your purpose, brand and values Wilson suggests starting with some of the following questions:
"'What are we here for?' If you sell accountancy services this is likely to be your core purpose, if you seek to do this using online services in order to reduce environmental impact and to empower business owners to understand and control their finances better this might also be core to your purpose."
"Ask yourself, 'What would our customers recognise about why they choose us?'" says Wilson, "You may be deeply and fundamentally committed to saving the rainforest, but unless you are clear about how the way you deliver your product or services achieves this, it won’t appear core to your brand and customers won’t understand why it is important."
You also need to be clear of the risks of pinning your colours to a specific mast: "So if you decide that that part of your messaging is that you seek to reduce waste sent to landfill because your product is upcycled, you need to be sure that philosophy applies to all waste, and is also a part of how you choose and contract the suppliers you work with."
Being able to measure or prove your purpose can be very important, says Wilson, "If you set out to achieve something which you can’t adequately prove then your claims will have less credibility. If your branding is all about how you support young people to gain relevant work experience and progress in your sector, your brand will have more credibility if customers can easily see how many work placements, apprenticeships or other opportunities you have supported."
Done well, purpose-based brand messages can be a powerful way to engage with customers who care about the things you care about, done badly, purpose-based branding can do more harm than good and damage your credibility.
"Businesses that have a strong sense of who they are have been around as long as business has existed," says Prior, "But there are a lot of organisations who are mistakenly defining very generic one- or two-line purpose statements in the mistaken belief that they’re going to be a better business. You either are a socially purposeful business and all your attitudes are reflective of that or you are not."
Ultimately, Prior believes that purpose is "just the word on everybody’s lips," he says, "largely to keep themselves occupied. In two years’ time it will have disappeared and been replaced with something else."