How to make purpose more than a vanity project

Shortly before the Pandemic put a stop to such gatherings, I attended The Grocer’s 2020 conference, which was all about Brand Purpose. I arrived cynical. It was very hard not to, as in my years as a strategist, more than half of the businesses I’ve worked with have been tussling with the purpose question in one form or another. What do we stand for? Why were we created? What is our North Star? And I can count on half a hand the number of businesses it has really helped to get better at what they do – be that commercially, or in terms of their impact on the world around them. Too often, it’s just a wasteful vanity exercise.

I am not, however, a purpose-sceptic. For one thing, I’m firmly of the belief that businesses have a responsibility to the planet, their communities, and their customers. But in 2021, purpose goes way beyond corporate social responsibility. It’s a way of defining the overall, long-term impact that a business can have. And the question remains: how do you make the most out of codifying a purpose for your business?

I’m going to try to avoid the platitudes: it must be true, it must be baked into your work, you must be committed to it. I assume you will have heard that stuff before. Instead, I’ll start with my favourite definition of brand purpose, courtesy of Andy Whitlock:

“Your brand purpose should be the most meaningful impact you can have on a customer that they will find hard to get anywhere else.”

What’s great about this definition is that it’s flexible, but leaves two things undisputed: that it’s about the impact you can have on people, and that it should set you apart in some way from your competitors. These are important lines in the sand.

Whitlock demonstrates how you can stray into the absurd by thinking too big or too small – read more on his blog. Once you’ve defined your “reasonable reach” though, what should you do with it?

The everyday role of purpose: COHESION

Every good marketer understands the importance of consistency in building a brand. There are a number of ways to ensure that brand experience is a persistent and recognisable drumbeat. On the executional end of things, there are distinctive visual and audio assets to repeat and codify. A campaign or brand may build memory through repeating words, images or ideas.

But at the top end, a clearly defined purpose can help to stitch together campaigns into a longer, more sustained fabric. It can help us avoid ricocheting from one worldview to another. In some ways, it’s an antidote to the often-derided short-termism within marketing. By establishing a clear, robust, top-level purpose, we can make sure the heart and soul of the brand survives the departure of senior talent.

If this is the case, there’s even more reason for it to be deeply woven into the fabric of the business. We are almost intentionally creating a sacred cow, something that we expect to go unchallenged (at least at its foundations) for some time.

A great example of purpose lending this sort of consistency is Dove’s Real Beauty platform. There’s little doubt that what was once a big campaign idea has now evolved into a North Star. New campaigns must fit within the ethos set by years of successful, purposeful campaigns.

The superhero role of purpose: FAME

If purpose is the glue that holds the fragments of your brand together over time and space, that’s enough to make it worthwhile having. But if you have the resources and your purpose is sharp enough, it can help you cut through the noise and deliver that holy grail of effectiveness – fame.

This is all about going beyond your products and services, and past your day-to-day. What can you do to demonstrate a broader and deeper commitment to achieving your purpose? Forget about your business for one moment and think past advertising. If you were given a blank slate and asked to solve the problem that your purpose is staring down, how would you do it?

At the Grocer conference, I was mesmerised by a talk by Ben Greensmith from Tony’s Chocolonely UK – a business whose noble purpose of removing slavery from the chocolate supply chain has literally made them famous, driving both physical and mental availability. For Tony’s, their brand is their purpose. It also tastes pretty damn good.

That’s not to say you have to get all selfless and altruistic. There are two sides to every coin. LEGO’s mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. They have a Foundation that donated US$15 million to education support charities in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they also licensed a BAFTA-winning movie with the moral that creativity can overcome tyranny. I think those two things both definitely meet the brief of inspiring the builders of tomorrow.

So, there you have it – a simple but effective model for understanding how brand purpose can go beyond navel-gazing and deliver truly impressive outcomes. If you want to learn more about finding – and using – your brand’s purpose, drop us a line at


Written by:

Adam Knott


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