Hugo Saavedra
Mar 22, 2013

Brand-building series: Figure out your brand's purpose in life

In our ongoing series on brand-building, Hugo Saavedra, senior consultant with EffectiveBrands, explains why brands today must have a meaningful purpose and how they can begin to approach the challenge of defining one.

Hugo Saavedra
Hugo Saavedra

One of the most common tools brand stewards use is to pose a question: If your brand were a person, what kind of person would he/she be? Exercises like this help people who aren’t used to branding jargon articulate their instinctive feelings about a brand in more everyday terms. 

Let’s follow that reasoning for a moment: If one of the most profound questions we can ask ourselves is "What am I here for?", then it stands to reason that one of the most profound questions brand stewards should ask themselves is "What does our brand stand for?"

Unfortunately, not enough do. And it’s going to come back to bite them. Because the past decade has seen consumers losing trust in institutions that used to inspire unwavering trust—banks, doctors, governments, the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, more than ever before, brands need a purpose.

Brands and companies with a cause don’t talk to anyone about why they’re purposeful. They just are. Their purpose permeates every layer of the organisation. It’s a raison d’etre that can’t be switched on or off—even during financial crises.  It's simply what the brand or company does every day.

The pioneering example of purposeful positioning of this kind is The Body Shop's long-term association with opposition to animal testing, beginning in the 1970s. Focusing on this issue inspired ‘messianic’ brand advocacy for the company. Another example is Starbucks, which has successfully sold consumption of its core product—artisanal coffee—as a positive lifestyle choice. Starbucks' decision to pay its employees a living wage, rather than the minimum wage, further distinguished the firm from its fast-food rivals and reinforced the brand's positive positioning. More recently, Zappos is an outstanding example of how a brand lives its values and its people live the brand. There is genuine commitment to customer service expressed throughout the organisation, an authentic workplace culture and vibe that shines through, even online—one that is creating long-term and lasting customer loyalty.

Good thing too, because more and more people are starting to look beyond the value that a product offers—and examining the values that the company behind it lives by.

Perhaps the most inspiring story that illustrates this is the purposeful positioning of Dulux, a famous but somewhat jaded British paint brand that desperately needed to increase its relevance to its customers. As it turned out, nature handed it the opportunity in the crucible of the Asian tsunami of 2004.

Tex Gunning, the leader of the decorative paints division of Dulux parent company AkzoNobel, learned a profound lesson when he led a team of senior executives to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the disaster to try and help the victims of the tsunami. They found people who had lost their loved ones and everything they had owned. So instead of rebuilding and painting temporary shelters for them, the AkzoNobel team members put down their tools and just sat with the people, empathised with them, were there for them. That’s when the epiphany hit: That you can gather people together, but if you don’t rekindle their hope and ignite their spirits, then nothing else matters. And that’s how Dulux discovered a new message that resonates with consumers, a fresh meaning to their tagline, 'Adding colour to people’s lives'.

Kerris Bright, then-CMO of AkzoNobel, has described it as a brand idea “based on a powerful universal truth about the magical potential of paint and colour to not only transform spaces, but to impact our spirits and how we feel. We sell cans of optimism, not just tins of paint.”

EffectiveBrands worked with AkzoNobel’s leadership team to embed this purposeful position within their organisation, and the powerful idea literally spread across the world. AkzoNobel’s communications partners ran with the idea and developed an inspiring global campaign that documented the extended team—all drawn by the strength of the idea and collaborating seamlessly.

Other large corporations have also jumped on the 'brandwagon'. Unilever, for instance, strives to embody some higher purpose in most of its brands. Purpose is an additional element in the positioning matrix that defines the role the brand plays in a consumer’s life. To hear Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, put it: "Every brand must have a social mission, and the consumer must have an integral part in defining that mission."

Having a purposeful positioning also brings with it a burden of responsibility, as it will directly place the truth of the brand’s values in the spotlight. In this digital age, if there is any inconsistency between a brand’s societal mission, the brand values and company performance, it will be picked up and tweeted, facebooked, tumblr’d and shared like never before.

This is not to suggest that you think twice about striving to find a purposeful position for the brand(s) under your care. Positioning is the foundation for creating lasting brand loyalty. It brings the brand closer to the consumer.

Employees win big, too. The well-documented Dove campaign around 'Real beauty' unleashed not just enormous consumer loyalty, but also commitment from company employees. Research shows that employees are saying, I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t have a clearly stated vision around (this brand). It matters to them. And increasingly, it matters to the market.

Today, more than ever before, a purposeful brand makes business sense. Doing things purposefully may cost a company some money. But not doing it may cost it a lot more. 

Now, is this sustainable over the long-term? Consider it an educational process: Some people will get it right away. Others have to experience it for themselves. You can start with a vision. But then you have to study it, think about it, talk to other people about it, get a point of view. It's involving your employees and your constituencies and saying, Let's get together and talk about this. You begin to build goodwill and credibility; you actually get a better plan because of it.

And that’s what purposeful branding is all about.

Please see the other instalments in this ongoing series.

Hugo Saavedra is a senior consultant with EffectiveBrands, a global marketing consulting firm dedicated to unleashing global brand potential. Based in Singapore, Saavedra has experience with clients including Mead Johnson Nutrition, Johnson & Johnson, and Campbell’s.

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