What, why and who cares what your brand ‘purpose’ is?

26 May 2021 | 5 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
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Do you know what is meant by brand ‘purpose’? If your answer is no, don’t worry because you are not alone. When we recently canvassed the thoughts in a survey of over 503 business leaders, more than half didn’t have a clue. So, what is brand ‘purpose’ and how does it differ to corporate social responsibility?

Many business leaders are confusing brand purpose with corporate social responsibility (CSR), but the two are very different entities.

CSR is when a business aligns itself to a good cause and commits to operating in a way that considers their societal, environmental and economic impact. It can be manifested in many ways, such as partnering with ethical suppliers, reducing fleet emissions, volunteer programs or philanthropy to name but a few.

There are multiple reasons why businesses adopt a CSR policy – chief among them being the opportunity to give something back to the community, enhance the perception of the organisation’s brand, build trust among stakeholder groups, and engage employees whilst attracting new ones at the same time.

Although most attention is afforded to large-scale organisations, a significant number of small and medium sized businesses also create CSR programs – they just don’t garner as much attention.

Just 43% of UK business leaders ‘get’ what is meant by brand ‘purpose’

Brand ‘purpose’, however, is an altogether different proposition. The purpose is the organisation’s raison d’étre – the very reason why it exists beyond making money. Its purpose enables the organisation to advance the cause that spirited its creation in the first place and is causally linked to the benefits that a business brings.

Ok, now that may sound like a lot of fluff, and it kind of is. But this fluff has meaning. Take Babylon Health as a case in point.

Founded in London in 2014, Babylon set out to improve access to healthcare and “harnesses artificial intelligence to provide recommendations to their patients without the use of real doctors.” (Prospect Magazine). The company is now valued at $2bn and sits firmly in the top 10 digital businesses to work for in the UK, according to LinkedIn.

Patagonia is another business whose purpose defines everything it does. Speaking at PRWeek’s #360 event this summer, Patagonia’s UK head of marketing said that the business changed its mission statement in late 2018 to what I see as one of the best examples of what it means to be a purpose-led business/brand:

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It’s brilliant. No hyperbole. No aggrandisement. And no bollocks either. Patagonia are just saying it as it is – much like when people ask me, What made you start Clearly PR? To which I reply,

Because I want a business that I would have hired as a client, and to build it to a position where we can eradicate some of the ills I see in society that simply should not exist in 21st century Britain.

When I say ‘ills’, I specifically mean homelessness and mental health. Why? Because I was of ‘no fixed abode’ in my late teens and early 20s, and a sofa surfer during every half-term, winter and summer holidays at university. Today, that is classified as ‘homeless’ which I didn’t understand back then (I’m now 48 years old).

And on mental health, this became a focus after I started Clearly when I met my wife. In her role as a teacher/housemistress, she opened my eyes to how prevalent poor mental health is in society. It is also one of the major symptoms of homelessness, and so there is a synergy with our original purpose.

Organisations can have more than one purpose, but they must be interdependent as in our case or other causes such as diversity and inclusion – you cannot have one without the other.

At the top of this article I mentioned the survey we conducted, where we asked business leaders what they understood brand ‘purpose’ to mean. Here’s what they said:

  • 43 per cent understood that brand purpose referred to what the business has set out to achieve for the wider good of society
  • One in four (25 per cent) thought that ‘brand purpose’ refers to how the business makes money
  • 21 per cent said that brand purpose related to what the business does
  • 11 per cent conceded to not fully understanding what it means

As we have seen, CSR and brand purpose are as similar as they are different, but it is important to make the distinction between the two because it is important from a bottom line as well as a branding perspective, too.

Indeed,

61 per cent of respondents to our survey stated that their business would choose a supplier with a clear social purpose over one that has none.

Moreover, 80 per cent of this number would do so even if that supplier was more expensive than one which had no brand purpose.

Food for thought at least.

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