Build your brand purpose from the product out

"Don’t force your purpose down my throat", says Andy Milligan in a recent blog post, here. This is a refreshing bit of common sense advice in a world where every brand seems to think its necessary to have a higher order reason to exist. The watch out is trying to climb so high up the "ladder" of benefits you end up thinking your brand of salty snack can change the world, as shown in by cartoon genius Tom Fishburne below.

Below I suggest a pragmatic approach to brand purpose, building from your product out.

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1. Earn the right to have a purpose

As Andy rightly points out, the most important purpose is not the one you have dreamt up for your brand, its the one your consumer has. I would suggest that in a lot or most categories, the purpose of consumers is not to connect at a higher order emotional level, but rather to get a job done as well as possible at the best price. I founded myself nodding vigorously when I read Andy's examples:

My bank is telling me that their purpose is to ‘help people fulfil their hopes and dreams and realise their ambitions’.  But I’d far rather that a person, and not a machine answers the phone when I call them and that they don’t put me on hold for 40 minutes, subjecting me to phone ‘music’, before eventually connecting me to someone in an Indian call centre whose accent is authentically different, but totally incomprehensible.

My mobile phone operator also now has a purpose ‘to empower everybody to be confidently connected’. I say, just give me a reliable mobile signal, whenever I want to use my phone – and I’d be happy.  Unfortunately, half the time I can’t get a signal at home and they can’t tell me why.

These examples show that your brand "has to earn the right" to have a purpose by being bloody brilliant at the basics. 

2. Build from your product out

"Head in the clouds, feet on the ground" was a phrase I heard in a conference speech by the brand director of Orange, back in the days when it was one of the best performing brands around. The idea was to allow yourselves some room to look up towards a bigger purpose, but with your feet on the ground rooted in your product. Regular readers will know the phrase I use to describe the same idea: sausage (product) and sizzle (emotion).

However, people often float off into the clouds when talking about brand purpose. Take Apple for example, Simon Senek suggests that people buy Apple because of a higher-order "why?", as quoted on this blog

"With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently."

However, the whole "Think Different" idea was only ever communicated in a poster campaign decades ago, which is known mainly to marketing and brand professionals, not the vast majority of Apple buyers. I suggest the purpose that drives Apple flows from the product out, and is something like: 

To create beautifully designed, easy to use products and services that allow people to connect, create and communicate 

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3. Social mission should help you sell more stuff

Some people now say that a brand purpose should not only have an emotional dimension, but also a social dimension. 

On the one hand, I'm a fan of social enterprise. I mentor social entrepreneurs like Harry Specter's, a chocolate company that creates employment for people with autism, through the Expert Impact program. But these are social enterprises, set up from the start with a social mission that is clear to customers, investors and employees.

In contrast, most big brands are funded by shareholders expecting them to focus on profitable growth. And they are bought by consumers who primarily have a job to do (clean the toilet, wash my hair, feed my dog etc.). Therefore, I suggest that leaders of these brand have a responsibility to ensure that any social mission is focused on i. delivering a great product for consumers and ii. SMS = selling more stuff for shareholders.

Unilever's Lifebuoy soap is a good example. Yes, the brand has a social mission to help save children' lives, as covered in this Marketing column. Marketing activity in India and south-east Asia encourages frequent and thorough hand washing. But let's be clear, achieving this social objective means selling more soap. Indeed, the column states that "Lifebuoy grew consumer reach points by 7% in the last year". What I especially like about the Lifebuoy example is how the social mission has driven a more distinctive product: the soap turns green when the germs have been killed, a fun way to promote hygiene. Indeed, I suggest this added functionality, linked with germ kill efficacy, is why Indian consumers use their precious money to buy it. They are not, I suggest, interested in the ‘higher purpose' of saving the lives of children; rather, they want to protect their own children.

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In conclusion, be careful when working on brand purpose to ensure that even if you have your head in the clouds, your feet are on the ground, creating great products that help you SMS (Sell more stuff).