Making brand purpose work

Making brand purpose work

Having a purpose beyond profit can power a brand. But if it’s not authentic or fully integrated, it becomes little more than an add-on – and customers know this as well as businesses do

Marketers might think that fostering and communicating brand purpose is an important part of their work, but do customers really care?

Take three well-known consumer brands: Ikea, Smirnoff, and Lush cosmetics. Think of Ikea and what first comes to mind is flat-pack furniture, meatballs and big blue warehouse-style stores – not forestry. Smirnoff? Vodka, obviously – but not LGBT+ issues. Lush? Fizzing bath bombs, fresh-smelling handmade soaps – but not birds of prey and undercover cops.

How much impact have these brands’ social purpose initiatives really had on the consumer mindset? At the end of the day, don’t customers really just want useful products at price points attractive to the market at which they’re aimed? Surely a brand vision based on meeting customer needs is enough? Isn’t brand purpose simply an optional extra? The answer is that customers do care, and that brand purpose should never be an afterthought.

Brand purpose can be defined as ‘a reason for a brand to exist beyond making profit’. Distinct from brand vision, having a purpose is not just about tactical marketing, or a charity campaign or corporate social responsibility initiative. Neither is it about locating some deeper level of ‘meaning’ in something you already do, which can be used as a tool to cut through the noise of a competitive marketplace.

Brand purpose needs to be a foundation of business – a set of values that are embedded in the business’s DNA, and a long-term, consistent investment that runs through everything the business does, like the word Blackpool runs through a stick of rock.


Ikea – vision leads to purpose

Ikea’s People and Planet Positive strategy report explains that the company’s brand vision is about “creating a better everyday life for the many”. This informs the company’s values, which are the starting point for Ikea’s many environmental initiatives.

Sustainable forestry is just one of those, but a vital one. More than 60 million of Ikea’s bestselling ‘Billy’ bookcases have been sold since the design for the was first sketched on a napkin in 1979, and all that wood has to come from somewhere.

In 2012, Ikea was targeted by environmental organisations for cutting down areas of ancient forest of high conservation value. In 2016, a petition with 180,000 signatures was handed to Ikea, demanding that the company should keep their environmental promises to their customers, and stop logging forests with irreplaceable trees.

Since 2012, Ikea has worked with the WWF to help increase Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests by around 865 million acres – an area the size of Germany. It is now one of the world’s largest buyers of FSC-certified wood in the retail sector, with almost half of the wood it uses coming from sustainable sources.

“It makes sense to have really clear, bold ambitions, and to find the opportunity to make an impact,” says Hege Saebjornsen, country sustainability manager for IKEA UK and Ireland. “And that might require innovation across the business, and it also needs to add value for the business, and for the customer.”

The sustainable forest initiative is a big step in the right direction, and while the company might not get everything right, its commitment to its purpose is ongoing, consistent, and feels applicable and authentic to the business as a whole.


Smirnoff – longevity beyond trends

Not all brand purpose is as closely associated with a business’s founding vision. Smirnoff, for example, has recently partnered with LADbible to produce a series of documentaries and videos that confront issues of LGBT+, race, and disability.

The initiative follows a pilot documentary, Meet the Village Angels, about volunteers making nightlife safer for people in Manchester. Meanwhile, the Diageo brand’s Bar Academy trains bartenders about dealing with issues such as hate crime and what pronouns to use for people in the trans community.

According to Smirnoff’s senior brand manager Nicholas Cornbleet, the emphasis on LGBT+ and accessibility is down to being “a brand that’s rooted in nightlife”, where pubs and clubs are safe spaces for people to be themselves. The current campaign is called ‘Free to Be’.

The campaign might tap into the nightlife zeitgeist, but Smirnoff underline that the key to keeping any stated brand purpose relevant is longevity, not being on trend – about “making a tangible, meaningful difference beyond just talking about stuff.”


Lush – tackling big issues

Peek behind Lush’s topline marcomms and a smorgasbord of brand promise is revealed – ethical buying, company tax, animal testing, ‘people’ policies… the list goes on. Initiatives have included helping to protect the habitat of orangutans by reducing use of palm kernels in cosmetics, highlighting the illegal persecution of rare birds of prey, supporting anti-road protestors, pro-Palestine groups, detainees in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and Syrian refugees.

Then, in May, Lush launched a campaign highlighting alleged abuses by undercover police officers in the UK. Store window displays featured a mock-up of a police officer in and out of uniform and words ‘Paid to lie #Spycops’.

The reaction of the public and in the media was generally negative. The campaign was judged as being anti-police and suddenly Lush, despite their history in tackling contentious subjects, were on the defensive. “This isn’t an anti-police campaign, it’s to highlight the abuse that people face when their lives have been infiltrated by undercover police,” the company countered, strongly, on social media.

By June, however, the campaign had been suspended “for the safety of our staff”. And yet, even that wasn’t the end of the story. A week later the campaign was reinstated, with Lush commenting online: “It has been incredibly clear over this last week that the plight of the spy cops victims has universal support from all who hear of it. Therefore we have taken away the distraction of, what turned out to be, a controversial visual to return the focus onto the shocking facts.”


Lessons learned

Did Lush go too far? How deep is Smirnoff’s care for clubbers? Can Ikea really succeed in creating a sustainable logging industry? If purpose brings accusations of hypocrisy, opportunism or failure to meet self-proclaimed standards, is it worth it?

It might be better to ask, ‘what else would a brand do?’ Express nothing but a commitment to profit? Dismiss any organisation that tries to make the world a better place? It’s easy to imagine how that would play out with customers.

And so, purpose is here to stay. It’s not a radical gesture, it’s an expected output of business. Marketers need to integrate it across the the organisation, the supply chain, and in communications, so it becomes more than merely campaigning. They also need to know how to keep it authentic, where it can fall down, and how to recover and reassert it if it does. It needs to be part of the day to day job. If it isn’t, purpose becomes purposeless.


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Martin Bewick
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