The Purpose of Purpose: Expressing organizational values to reach your goals

Brand purpose has been a favourite topic in marketing circles for the past few years.

The idea of communicating greater purpose in advertising is not new. In 1971, a beverage company sought to bring the world together in perfect harmony (and sell a few bottles along the way). But back then, attaching your brand to greater values or purpose was a novel idea. Today, it’s the expectation.

Many attribute this growing interest in an organization’s values to the state of global affairs. Divisive politics have led to fewer people trusting their governments. Instead, people are increasingly placing expectations on businesses to make the world a better place.

And consumers are willing to put their money where their beliefs are. Seventy-one per cent of millennials are more likely to buy from brands that drive environmental and social change. The same is true for Gen Z.

So how can organizations express their values in a way that will help reach their goals and make the world a better place?

Great question! Couldn’t have asked it better myself.

Seek Meaning

The days of high-profile brands playing the neutral party seem to be over.

With more and more consumers considering company values when making buying decisions, organizations need to find ways to communicate what they stand for.

When done well, brand purpose can earn tons of media attention, increase brand loyalty, and boost your bottom line.

One way to make your mark as a brand is by taking a lens to current behaviors and looking for ways to improve them. That’s what Always did in 2014 with its #LikeaGirl campaign, which made people reconsider how they use the phrase “like a girl”. It was relevant for the audience — since Always sells feminine hygiene products, this advertising campaign’s insight around confidence plummeting for girls during puberty was a logical fit. And instead of just challenging the way we use language (which to some might seem like a lip service campaign to just sell more products), Always also donated to charities that empower women. This showed that they were willing to walk the walk (like a girl).

Another approach is to make a statement about company values at opportune moments, like an event or time of year. That’s what outdoor retailer REI did for Black Friday a few years ago. While other retailers were preparing for the biggest shopping day of the year, REI announced it was closing for the day — telling people to spend the day outside instead of hitting the mall. This brand act, so striking because it forfeited such an important retailing opportunity, made up for lost revenues in earned media value and reinforced their brand in an authentic way.

Of course, a surefire way of getting people’s attention is by weighing in on a controversial topic dominating the headlines. That’s what Nike did last year when it employed former NFL player Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson. Instead of staying quiet (and safe), they picked a side and communicated where they stood in a way that was very on-brand for Nike. By doing so they stood for something, even if it meant sacrificing everything. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.

Whether they were challenging antiquated stereotypes, rejecting accepted consumer habits, or tackling the news, each of these organizations found a way to communicate their values in a way that was authentic to their brand.

They also each found a way to make me feel inadequate because they’re all ideas I wish I’d come up with.

That’s not always the case.

Don’t Force It

Focusing on brand purpose is a great way of connecting with your audience and building brand loyalty. Except when it’s not.

And when it’s not, it’s almost exclusively because the organization in question did something inauthentic.

Though Dove’s campaign for real beauty was widely considered a success, there was some backlash since its parent company, Unilever, also has the Axe brand in its portfolio — whose advertising tended to fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from Dove’s. This perceived contradiction bred a certain amount of skepticism about whether the company’s values actually matched what Dove was communicating, which took away from Dove’s work and charitable efforts.

Another attempt at leveraging brand purpose that wasn’t considered a success, by anybody anywhere, was when Pepsi tackled racism. You can just imagine the room when the team working on this campaign decided this was a good idea — somebody having the bright idea that, given the tumultuous times we live in, Pepsi should do their own version of Coke’s famous ad uniting the world. Of course, given the current climate – simplifying complex issues and having Kendall Jenner break the tension between protestors and police with a can of Pepsi was a little tone deaf. And with no further insight, action, or connection to the product, didn’t feel authentic to the brand.

Communicating your brand purpose and joining the conversation is an effective way to get attention. But not all attention is good. Especially when disdain for your ad seems to be the only thing the Internet can agree upon.

Go Forth with Purpose

Our industry is fun.

Not just because there are Friday afternoon drinks and bowling and pets in the office and all the other things that make my dad think I don’t have a real job.

It’s that we get the chance to solve different problems every day, using creativity as our tool.

That’s why this industry attracts the people it does. Banksy said, “the thing I hate most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people”.

But where he saw this as a negative — wasting talent on selling things instead of pursuing other, more noble endeavors — it doesn’t have to be.

When we can find and embrace purpose — and use it to guide our creative work — there’s opportunities to make a real impact.

At Banfield, we’re fortunate to work with clients who are raising awareness around the opioid epidemic, providing support for veterans, and warning teens against the dangers of driving high. These are causes that aren’t very hard to get behind.

Yes, purpose-driven advertising has become trendy recently. And when done in an inauthentic way, an already cynical audience can become even more cynical and the brand’s reputation can suffer.

But when done well, everybody can win.

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