Do You Really Need a Brand Purpose?

Kevin Namaky

In recent years, many have jumped on the “purpose" bandwagon—not the least of which are consultants and freelancers pitching for work, and CMOs wanting to make their mark. On the surface it seems like a noble thing. Why wouldn’t a person, brand or company want to serve an important higher cause through their work?

But like many things we initially create for good reason, it seems maybe we've gone too far. There’s a difference between taking steps to operate ethically in support of moral imperatives, and defining an organization’s entire reason for existence around a cause that is disconnected from its product or service value. And in taking up the mantle of brand purpose, it seems many brands are becoming disconnected from reality.

While sustainability is rising as an influencing factor on consumer purchase consideration, this is not to be confused with a brand’s purpose. Perhaps the biggest red flag is that everyone seems to have their own definition of what brand purpose is. Depending whom you ask, it's equivalent to vision, mission, objective, positioning, insight, brand story, manifesto, or all of the above. With all of these other strategic tools and documents, do you really need to add a brand purpose to the mix?

While every brand needs a certain level of “north star” guidance, sometimes we marketers tend to overcomplicate things. The reality is that there are just a few fundamental things a brand needs to create in order to establish meaningful direction.

The three questions below can help you focus on these fundamentals. If you can clearly answer these questions, you probably don’t need to embark on creating a brand purpose. You may already have it.

1) Why do you exist?

It’s most important to start with the fundamental problem or desire that your brand solves for. More specifically, this is the fundamental problem, tension or desire that your product or service solves. This is traditionally captured in a targeting profile and positioning statement, and is ideally based on consumer/customer research such as ethnographies, other observational methods and possibly surveys.

For example, personal care brand Dove addresses the problem of “big beauty”—that the beauty industry itself creates an unrealistic and unhealthy perception of beauty among women. This unhealthy perception was uncovered and illuminated through a series of research studies beginning in 2004. This insight lies at the heart of great campaigns such as Dove Real Beauty Sketches. And because Dove products are beauty products formulated to moisturize skin and hair, the brand’s “why” is directly connected to the value that Dove provides to consumers. This ensures that Dove’s strategy is authentic.

2) Where are you going?

Next, define what you want to accomplish in the future. What is the larger impact your brand hopes for? What would the world look like if you completely solved the problem identified in question #1? The answers to these questions are traditionally captured in a vision, mission or objective statement. While many brands or businesses have these statements and they are often used interchangeably, it’s a lack of inspiration that leaves many brand leaders seeking to create something more—a truly inspirational “purpose.”

If Dove wants to completely solve the problem of big beauty, then they must support acknowledging, loving and bringing out women’s true, authentic beauty. In a perfect future state, big beauty standards would be completely erased. This is indeed their vision:

We want to redefine beauty standards and help everyone experience beauty and body image positively. We care about the future generation: helping girls build positive self-esteem through the Dove Self-Esteem Project, ensuring the world they enter is removed of toxic beauty standards. (dove.com)

3) Is this future aspiration motivating for internal employees?

If you’ve gotten this far, you already have a problem/desire and future vision that is relevant to your consumer or customer. In other words, you have a purpose! But this last question is a test to confirm if it’s also inspirational, not just for consumers/customers, but also for everyone working on the brand. A vision that is inspirational can excite employees, create a sense of belonging and increase loyalty.

You will probably have some level of gut reaction already. It may feel motivating to you. If so, validate your initial reaction by asking employees and fellow stakeholders. If you’ve uncovered something truly inspirational, they’ll tell you.

Do you need a purpose after all?

If you already have the answers to the three fundamental questions—great. You don’t need to do additional work to come up with a “brand purpose.” You already have what you need regardless of what you call it.

If you don’t have at least one of the answers, then you have some work to do. Call it a brand purpose if you want, but the semantics are a bit irrelevant. The important thing is to align on the answers, document them, communicate and live them in your organization.


Kevin Namaky is the CEO at the Gurulocity Brand Management Institute, a marketing education company that delivers training for Fortune 500 clients. Kevin is also a featured instructor for the American Marketing Association, lectures at the IU Kelley School of Business, is a member of the CMO Council, and worked for 20 years in the corporate and agency world growing notable consumer brands. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.

[byline - condensed version]

Kevin Namaky is the CEO at the Gurulocity Brand Management Institute, a consumer marketing education company. Kevin is also a featured instructor for the American Marketing Association, lectures at the IU Kelley School of Business, and is a member of the CMO Council. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.

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