The problem with finding ‘problems’ with purpose brands

Alan Emmins & Ulrik Horten
September 2019

Earlier in the year we started to notice that articles with the sole purpose of bashing purpose brands kept popping up in our LinkedIn feeds. As two people who can rant endlessly about the value of a purpose brand, Ulrik and I had a slight panic. What had we missed?


That first article wrote about the stupidity of brands ‘shopping’ for a purpose. It focused on a confectionary brand struggling with whether their purpose should be sustainability, corporate social responsibility or carbon neutral. It had a cool little sketch of a sweet counter with packaging promoting the different purposes. And once we got over that, we wondered, do people really do that? Firstly, sustainability, corporate social responsibility or being carbon neutral aren’t purposes at all. I would argue, in 2019, that the first two are standard operating procedures and the third a noble but as yet unachieved intention. Ulrik wanted to know who would shop for a purpose in this way? Was it coming from agencies or clients? But I didn’t have an answer. Nobody I have worked with in the last five years would make that mistake, and that goes for colleagues and clients.


And so we relaxed a bit. The article offered no insights as to why the bubble had burst on purpose brands. Instead it highlighted, albeit accidentally, the inevitable return on laziness combined with assumption.


But then another article appeared, this time focusing on why purpose brands are a bad investment to drive internal motivation. It basically said the ROI was never met because the motivation was never sustained. Again, we found ourselves wondering, who would try to build a purpose brand solely to motivate employees? While we believe a strong purpose brand can do great things for internal motivation (if it’s authentic and outward serving), developing one purely to motivate internally seems to be missing the point by several miles. Surely that’s how you wind up thinking CSR is a purpose?


It seems to us that the trend to bash purpose brands needs to take a breath and dig a bit deeper into the problem. It’s not the concept of purpose brands that’s the problem, it’s the execution. Whether we’re looking for them or not, we are tripping over inauthentic, poorly executed purpose brands every time we step out of the house or open the computer.

There are two common errors that seem to be giving purpose brands a bad rap:
  1. A fundamental misunderstanding of what a purpose is, often as a result of not understanding who the purpose serves.

  2. A fundamental misunderstanding of one’s own role, which tends to lead to generic purposes that can’t possibly be delivered on.

At &Robin, we believe brand purpose goes hand-in-hand with the impact you have on the lives of the people you serve with your business, and a strong brand purpose will demand that you continually take action to get better at serving them. A brand purpose must be directly connected to the thing you enable that group to do in a way they couldn’t without your business or product. In this way, the purpose is always tethered to the core of your business, clearly present in the decisions and actions your brand takes, and its impact can be measured. This is why brand purpose includes – but must also transcend – product in order to drive actions that add tangible value.


Understanding one’s own role is critical to whether or not a purpose is authentic, ownable and ultimately, once established, able to serve and support strategic business needs. Basic value communication principles dictate that companies talk about their big picture value. That’s right to a point, but it requires putting down the drum and taking a humbler stance, because the outcome of the outcome of the outcome is more often than not far, far removed from our true role.

Embrace your enabler role

While doing competitor research for one of our clients, we came across a few IT solution providers in the solar industry claiming that their purpose is to deliver clean energy to the world. In reality they are not capable of delivering clean energy to the house next door, but nor are they trying to. Their product is an IT solution and while that solution may assist those that do deliver clean energy to do it better and more efficiently, they are still an enabler and not a deliverer. So their purpose is confusing. A wind farm in need of their solution could easily look at their purpose and mistake them, as deliverers of clean energy, for a competitor.


Pharma companies who claim that the patient is at the center of everything they do have been misunderstanding their role for decades. If we push R&D to one side, payers and prescribers are at the center of an awful lot of what a pharma company does, which is understandable as that’s the landscape they operate in. But it means the job, for the most part, isn’t to ‘be patient centric’, but to maximize the patient centricity of those who actually treat and care for patients. That role, the enabler role, would fundamentally change how a pharma company acts. It would change the very concept of what its products are and totally redefine its value towards payers, HCPs and patients. It would change how people perceive their company and could begin to address the industry-wide trust issues that have plagued pharma for decades.


If pharma companies accepted that they don’t always have to dress for the lead hero part and instead embraced their enabler role, pharma companies would have gone ‘beyond the pill’ decades ago. Their value to their stakeholders and partners, to patients and society, would have been unshakable.


Maybe confection brands should be free to just focus on great tasting products, and if they do have a strong commitment to sustainability maybe it is okay for them to wear it on their sleeves. I would rather encourage it than bash it. But if it’s too last year to be encouraged, let’s at least not mistake it as a purpose and start using it as an example of why purpose brands are a bad investment.  


Real purpose isn’t as hard to find in a B2B setting. Agree on who you serve (customer not user) and the challenge that you help them overcome (what you enable). Develop products, services and communication that enable the customer to address their challenge better than ever before. Continually ask how you can improve that offering.  


It sounds so simple, but in reality, developing a true purpose brand can feel like an entirely new business model. The stakeholder management alone often spells out defeat, and the change management required normally puts the last nail in the coffin where the budget got filed.


But, if you accept and understand your own enabler role, it doesn’t have to be such a massive undertaking. You might discover that your values and actions are already doing half the job for you. You might be a lot closer to a clear and authentic purpose that drives business and perception than you think. Sure, it might be humbler than you were originally hoping for, but for that very reason it will resonate better with your target audience, set a stronger course and serve you for longer.


At &Robin we definitely feel that not enough companies are embracing their enabler role when developing purpose brands. The fact that we called our agency &Robin tells you that we are massive fans of the enabler role. We believe it can be harnessed for good, and be activated as a powerful weapon that quickly delivers competitive edge and lasting loyalty.