The 'p' word: What we should consider when we talk about purpose

The strategy director at Forsman & Bondenfors makes a case for the very purpose of purpose.

Yes, this is yet another article about brand purpose.
Yes, this is yet another article about brand purpose written by yet another strategist.
And yes, this is yet another article about brand purpose written by yet another strategist that talks about profits, brands, and mayonnaise.

Wait, what? Mayonnaise?

Yup.

The legendary industrialist, J.R.D. Tata (of the Tata Group), once said that the purpose of a business is to stay in business. While that seems obvious and simplistic on the surface, there is a staggering amount of depth in it when you think about it for a second. Staying in business, over decades, especially in our volatile times, is never easy. It means constantly being competitive, continuous innovation, taking care of consumers’ desires (and delight) with every interaction, doing right by your people every day, and making sure that you are always delivering the right value proposition. In other words, “staying in business” means doing everything a business ought to do.

Now, I am nobody to argue with Mr Tata. The gentleman built one of India’s largest empires, while I, well, have difficulty assembling a Lego set. However, here’s a thought. While the above definition of purpose works well as the purpose for a business, does the same work for a brand? And if not, what does? And do we really need to have yet another conversation about purpose?

Does purpose serve a purpose?

One of Unilever’s largest shareholders, Terry Smith, recently and famously went on a tirade that this ‘purpose’ movement may have gone too far. His point of contention? That wonderful, magical thing: mayonnaise.

Unilever believes that it is important for brands to take a stand on social issues. They extended that philosophy to their mayonnaise brand, Hellman’s, in its global purpose-driven campaign 'Turn nothing into something' that tackles food wastage.

In a letter to investors in January this year, Smith said “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

Again, I am no one to argue. 'Purpose for purpose’s sake' can be pointless but can also often be ridiculous. We all remember the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner. Shudder. The commercial was heavily criticised across social media for being tone-deaf and simplistic, and for having a ‘purpose’ that seemed superficial in context of both the product as well as the audience. Chewing gum taking on world peace would – and should – rightfully be questioned. As should the flood of brands who stood up during Covid to pay lip service (and nothing more) to the ‘power of togetherness’.

However, this is where the story gets interesting. Six months after this letter, Unilever released its earnings report, and surprise, surprise – Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand achieved double-digit growth in the first half of 2022, supported by its global purpose-driven campaign. Could there actually be something to this ‘purpose’ thing? Could purpose even – gasp – lead to profits?

Let’s be honest – purpose is not a new phenomenon. Lifebuoy was literally created 128 years ago with the purpose of helping an entire country in its war against cholera. In 1976, Marriott paired up with March of the Dimes – a non-profit that worked towards preventing birth-defects in babies – to mutually beneficial effect.

Why, then, is purpose such a hotly debated topic today? From the biggest brands in the world, to the greatest marketing minds of our times (marketing experts of the calibre of Peter Field and Mark Ritson have written interesting, incisive perspectives on it) are engaged in this conversation.

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that while there are many (too many, maybe) conversations around the validity and the role of purpose, many of those conversations are possibly mis-interpreting the word itself.

Here is my take on how we are getting purpose wrong, and what it ought to be.

What purpose is not

Purpose, as we use it every day in marketing-speak, is often woefully misunderstood.

Purpose is not charity – it is a choice. It is not something we do to appear large-hearted; it is something we define to show that there is a method to our marketing madness. It is a choice a brand makes based on what truly matters to its products and its customers.

Purpose is not a fad – it is a fact. It’s not a hashtag to latch onto in the topic-of-the-season game. It is an unshakeable testament to a brand’s beliefs demonstrated through its business and products, expressed truthfully and with complete sincerity.

Purpose is not obtuse – it is obvious. It should be visible in big bold letters through everything your brand does. It should be the most apparent sub-text in every piece of a brand’s communication – be it about profits or about people.

Purpose is not CSR – it is your reason to exist. In fact, its significantly more than a social responsibility – it can extend to your responsibility to your shareholders too, as I’m certain Smith would agree.

The principles of purpose

I have always believed that purpose works best when it is defined across three fundamental levels. I call it the 3N Model. Why? Because I’m a strategist. We like models.

Native: Purpose cannot be separated from the business or the brand. It is as much a part of the company as the product, the packaging, the people and the rarely annual bonuses.

Natural: Purpose makes sense when it's an organic fit. Purpose should be a product of your business, not an extra, superfluous layer added on top to create tear-inducing three-minute films.

Neutral: Purpose does not have hierarchy. There’s no big or small when it comes to purpose. If your product and brand can seamlessly extend itself to a purpose that genuinely makes a difference in the consumer’s life, you have a winner. More colourful socks are as valid as world peace.

Purpose comes from products, and products come from purpose

Does a brand of mayonnaise need a social purpose? Not necessarily. However, can the product serve a larger purpose beyond being a condiment? Perhaps – as Hellman’s says, it certainly makes leftover food tastier, minimising food wastage in my house. So a fight against food wastage is not necessarily a bridge too far – they seem to be doing that, one house at a time. At the same time, it also sells more mayonnaise.

The best examples of ‘doing purpose right’ comes from brands who have fused their products, purpose and business into one cohesive, inter-connected ecosystem.

The first name in this discussion should be rightfully reserved for Patagonia – a brand that is truly living its purpose in everything from its products to the founder’s recent decisions.

Nike wants to create a world where everyone is an athlete – a purpose that is beautifully realised through their products, like the Pro Hijab.

Volvo, a brand always striving to create a safer world, found that women were 71% more likely to be injured in a car crash. Therefore, not only did they make their own cars safer for women, but also collated all their research and published it online for other companies to adopt, so that all cars would be safer for women.

Bühler, a Swiss organisation focused on creating innovations for a better, more sustainable world, invests 5% of its revenue (significantly more than the industry norm) back into R&D to create better technology that helps produce sustainable food and mobility solutions.

All these decisions have been driven by a core purpose - but have also, over time, led to better products, more profits, and a better business.

There is a definite role for purpose beyond profits – but we should not assume that the two are in any way untethered. Nor is purpose disconnected from your product. The true meaning – and power – of purpose only comes through when you live your purpose as a brand.

What you do is why you do it.


Siddhant Lahiri is strategy director at Forsman & Bodenfors.


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