Brands should follow Obama’s advice: “be useful and kind”

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 08.13.46Post by Jon Goldstone, Managing Partner at the brandgym in London, and former VP of Marketing for Unilever. This is based on an article published in Campaign here.

As a former marketer at Unilever, one of the questions that I’m most frequently asked is: “Do you really believe in all that brand purpose stuff?”

The short answer is that I do. Most of all, I believe the business case for purpose. The Unilever brands with a high-quality, purpose-based proposition clearly outperform their competitors, command higher margins and are a real force for good.

However, in the wake of the Cannes Advertising Week – where just about every award and seminar seemed to be related to brand purpose – and, more recently, Grey’s decision to return its bronze Lion for the I Sea app, it feels like a good time for reflection. It is obvious that “brand purpose” has become an overused and poorly understood concept.

1. Be useful and kind

A while ago, I saw an interview with Barack Obama that really helped me get my head around the whole brand purpose thing. When asked by the interviewee (Bear Grylls, bizarrely!) if he had ever suggested to his daughters that they should get into politics, he gave a wonderful answer. He said that he only ever gave them one piece of advice, which was to be useful and to be kind.

I feel that brands can learn from that advice. “Be useful, be kind” is a pretty good definition of brand purpose.

  • To be useful, a brand needs to serve a meaningful role – to solve a problem or satisfy a need better than the closest alternative.
  • To be kind, a brand needs to speak to its target audience in a tone that is authentic, honest and transparent.

If a brand does this, over time it will become trusted. And with brand trust comes the ability to charge a premium, invest back into the brand and fuel the virtuous cycle of growth.

2. Laddering too high

So many brands seem to get it wrong. They end up with grandiose purpose statements that are distant from the true role of the brand and horribly generic. I recently saw McDonald’s being berated for its claim: “Our purpose goes beyond what we sell. We’re using our reach to be a positive force. For our customers. For our people. Our communities. Our world.” This feels like a stretch. Its an example of a brand “laddering” up so high from benefits to values and beyond that it looses touch with the reality of the product, as we posted on here using Tom Fishburne’s brilliant cartoon.

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 08.19.01
A more modest purpose rooted in the product might work better for McDonald’s to inspire and guide their people, and help consumers get what they stand for as a brand. In my experience, McDonald’s offers good-value, good-quality food to busy people. It is a useful brand. Its recent advertising, which attempts to debunk some of the myths around its products, comes across as honest and transparent. It is certainly trying to be a kind brand.

3. Build on truth: human, cultural, brand

At Unilever, it is mandated that every brand-positioning statement includes a section where the brand purpose is clearly stated. However, for every Dove or Ben & Jerry’s with their ambitious brand purpose statements, there are plenty of brands whose brand purpose is relatively humble.

It might seem odd that Pot Noodle should be considered to be as purposeful as Dove but I think that’s the point. Pot Noodle could have made a claim about the provenance of its noodles. It could have announced a mission to improve the working rights of noodle workers around the world. But none of this would have been true to the brand or the memory structures that it has built up over several decades. Instead, Pot Noodle remained true to its role in people’s lives (being useful) and maintained a tone that was consistent with its past – truthful and transparent (being kind).

[Note from David: The Pot Noodle re-launch Jon worked on when at Unilever won Marketing’s New Thinking Award for Brand Evolution last night 🙂 ]


So at a time of turbulence and uncertainty, when people are looking for brands to trust, my advice would be to keep it very simple. Develop a purposeful proposition that is true to the times but is also true to your brand and the people that it serves.

It might be helpful to take inspiration from Obama and ask yourself: is my brand useful and is my brand kind?