‘A Native American grandfather talking to his young grandson tells the boy he has two wolves inside of him struggling with each other. The first is the wolf of peace, love, and kindness. The other wolf is fear, greed, and hatred. ‘Which wolf will win, grandfather?’ asks the boy. ‘Whichever one I feed’, is the reply.’(Visser, 2011 p.23)
– Native American Proverb
Having a brand is essential.
It’s our story. Our persona. It’s what we stand for. It’s our tribe.
We invite people to join. They may wear it with pride or see it as a sign of quality. Either way, our brand is a promise, one that we make with our customers (and students).
It’s an opportunity to be part of something. It creates recognition. It supports sales (and applications).
However, to some, a brand has a wider calling. One that is courageous and heroic, protecting the world and has a value far beyond that of a commercial entity. It has meaning. It has a purpose.
Do brands really have a purpose?
Have you ever realised how many companies now have a purpose? Everyone has one. Even SaaS companies. Software companies. Companies that produce software for businesses – really?
Truth is, it’s now become a trend. Part of being on the woke bandwagon, as society is driven by hashtags and virtue signalling. Words, not actions.
Brands need to be seen to be solving complex societal and environmental issues. So much so, that there are now dedicated agencies that can help businesses to generate a purpose.
Type into Google ‘Brand Purpose’, and the landing page from one such agency states:
“… Our mission is to help you build belief in your brand, business or cause. Because people engage more with brands they believe in. It’s not a fluffy task that can be achieved quickly – especially if you have been going for some time and have spent many years existing only to make profit. We are here to help you navigate the new purpose-driven economy and unlock the value in operating as a socially responsible and ethical business.”
Let me translate: “Unlock the value” actually means “leads to more sales.”
That’s the issue with the execution of ‘Brand Purpose’. It’s a misdirection. Smoke and mirrors. It’s nothing more than a rebranding exercise to appeal to those who are socially conscious. It’s another campaign.
We have seen in times of real crisis, which brands are genuinely looking out for the wellbeing and protection of their customers, employees, and the wider community.
You only have to log in to Twitter to know who has questionable practices. The hashtag #Boycott<insertBrandname> has been in overdrive recently due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Involving the likes of Virgin, Wetherspoons, Waterstones, Rick Stein, and Sports Direct to name a few examples.
When the going gets tough, businesses, much like individuals, show you their true colours.
Whether you’re a Boomer, a Millennial, Gen Z or Gen Alpha, everyone is watching. It’s very easy to discover who follows through on their tagline and those who don’t. There’s no escape.
Therefore, we need to be careful. Actions speak louder than words. Our ‘purpose’ will be undermined if the Marketing Dept. is saying one thing, but the business is actually doing the opposite.
Hypocrisy, thy name is <insert your brand name here>.
It’s not brand purpose. It’s Corporate Social Responsibility.
That’s not to say we should ignore the intention behind having a ‘Brand Purpose’. It’s just we need to consider this in a much broader context. It’s not a branding exercise. It’s engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
In my opinion, this is where the confusion has come about:
From the shareholders and CEO, all the way down to the production line and the shop floor; and everything in between. It covers every aspect and business entity.
It’s being aware of our actions and ensuring minimum impact and disruption to society, the environment and to individuals. It leaves nothing unturned.
As Professor Wayne Visser, eloquently explains in his book (The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0):
“Responsibility is the set of prints we leave in the sand, the mark of our passage.”
We should be actively encouraging everyone to become more aware of their actions. Especially big business. However, if the ‘purpose’ is separate from how they conduct their actual business, then it completely undermines the principle.
It creates an ethical silo. Where the only ‘purpose’ is to derive new messaging to increase sales.
It becomes a good story rather than a cause to drive genuine change.
CSR is about building from the ground up.
Using it as guidance to make significant, long-term decisions that enable profit while minimising the negative impacts of commercialisation.
Giving back to the communities and in some respects, leaving environments in better shape compared to when they first set up shop.
Companies that are exemplars of this way of working are Unilever and Patagonia. CSR has driven and shaped these organisations at EVERY conceivable level.
It’s part of their strategy. It’s their purpose. It’s authentic.
The point of this blog is simple: If you’re going to have a
brand purpose, it needs to be reflected in all operations.
The best approach is to take the ‘thinking’ away from the consumer. Build a sustainable business model and product from concept, to end-of-life. And everything in-between. Cost it, then make it known. Frame as a ‘convenience’ to do your part for the environment.
It’s not a hashtag to show solidarity as part of a campaign. We need to make sure everything is aligned.
This is why the term ‘Brand Purpose’ needs to be banned. It’s trivialised a serious strategic approach to business, sustainability, society, and the environment.
Share your thoughts
What do you think about ‘Brand Purpose’? Have you seen any ethical businesses making unethical decisions in recent times? Let me know in the comments below, send me a tweet @CJPanteny, or get in touch.
And if you liked this blog, don’t forget to share it on your socials and bask in its ranty goodness.
See you next time.
Wayne, V., (2011) Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business, 1st edition. John Wiley & Sons.