It’s official. Purpose-mania has overtaken the marketing world. Often defined as "a brand’s reason to exist beyond making money," purpose-branding got a huge boost a few years ago with books like Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and Jim Stengel’s Grow. I met Jim at an event in NYC last week and his POV on purpose is in high demand around the country among CEOs.
Initially, the marketing world’s obsession with ‘brand purpose’ had the potential to spark great improvements in both marketing and society. But it hasn’t necessarily turned out that way. It’s not that the quest for purpose has lost steam—far from it. More brands than ever are attempting to be purpose-led or purpose-driven brands and companies.
The issue is that purpose has lost meaning.
A big reason for this is that marketers often seek purpose for the wrong reason. Too frequently it’s disingenuous box checking: "REI has a purpose, Patagonia has purpose, we should have one too". Other times, purpose-seeking is simply virtue signaling—an exercise to make a brand’s marketing team feel good about what they do, or have a noble-sounding answer when asked ‘what do you do for a living’ at cocktail parties.
There are even times when a brand’s stated purpose doesn’t emanate from its values or mission at all, but rather has been made up by an outside consultant. I once had an inquiry from a gentleman saying his brand had no purpose, and wondering how much would one cost. As if we had a library of purpose strategies from which to pluck a juicy one for him.
Even when the motives for purpose-branding are genuine, the output can be vague, generic or so lofty and stratospheric as to be far removed from customer reality. How many brands have you seen whose purpose is along the lines of ‘making the world a better place,’ ‘inspiring people’ or ‘helping people live their best life? When every competitor’s purpose is the same, it sort of defeats the, ah, mmm... purpose.
That said, none of these is actually the biggest problem with the current brand purpose-craze. The real issue is: all talk, and no action. Too often a brand’s purpose lies dormant in a Powerpoint deck, and ends up never being activated out in the world. Companies spend millions developing purpose strategies. They develop these strategies with purpose experts or consulting companies that now offer purpose expertise. But then they hand over the purpose strategy in a neat Powerpoint, send the invoice and wish the company luck.
Activate your brand purpose with a movement
This idea of activating brand purpose is near and dear to us because it’s what we specialize in at StrawberryFrog. Before we started the agency, the founders and I had spent a decade developing purpose strategies for Swedish multinational companies. Nordic consumers pushed purpose strategies into the boardrooms of Scandinavian companies because people wanted companies to deal with real societal issues such as environmental impact, equality and social progress. Thus was born a robust purpose-brand culture in the late '80s and early '90s. But as these same Nordic companies expanded globally, the purpose strategies failed to resonate in other counties, and were super challenging to mobilize in order to sell goods and services. Back then we felt there was something missing.
We launched StrawberryFrog in 1999 and pioneered an approach called 'movement marketing' to help brands avoid the hazards that come with pursuing purpose that just sits there and does nothing. A big part of this approach is asking some tough questions to jumpstart creating a purpose a brand can act on. Here are a few of them:
What’s the enemy? Knowing what a brand is against can give focus and energy to what the brand is for. For example, nearly all banks have a purpose that dances around the idea of "helping move people’s financial lives forward." This can obviously lead to actions that are generic. But if we think harder as to what a bank brand’s nemesis is—financial insecurity, fear, or lack of understanding—clearer and more ownable actions bubble up.
Is your purpose expressed in a simple, motivating and big enough way? More often than not, companies develop overly complicated and generic brand purpose statements that trigger the BS meter. Is the idea being expressed in a pithy, memorable way that employees as well as consumers and prospects can remember emotionally?
Does your purpose have buy-in at the top? More than once, I’ve seen a brand’s high-minded purpose initiative be shut down by top company leadership as either not pragmatic enough or 'too risky'. This has happened often enough that I once seriously considered writing a blog post called 'How to be a socially conscious marketer, when your company’s leadership doesn't really believe in anything'. Bottom line, if your company’s top leadership isn’t 100% on board, a higher purpose is likely to just be window dressing for your brand.
Does it inspire on the inside? I’ve often found that a good first step in articulating an actionable purpose is to ask the question, What would make an employee want to get up and go to work every day? If an employee can readily put a brand purpose to work in his/her job, it shows in the customer experience—which is what actionable purpose is all about. That’s why purpose marketing nearly always works better when it works from the inside out.
I know, I know, purpose isn’t dead. On the contrary it’s red hot. However purpose is dead unless you can effectively activate it. And plenty of marketing and brand managers have no idea how to activate a brand purpose. Neither do many ad agencies.
Purpose should inform a movement strategy. And the movement strategy should activate the purpose inside the company to motivate trust, passion, and creativity. Externally among consumers, a movement should move people to move passions to move product. All using smart technology that mobilizes people, much like social movements do, in new and smarter ways.
Purpose today can underpin a movement inside an organization that ignites passion, conviction, and moreover trust among employees, while culture and habits are changed. And externally, with the right expertise you can use purpose to devise an effective movement outside—a marketing campaign that drives growth better, and smarter, than advertising or social media.
Scott Goodson is founder and CEO at movement strategy and movement marketing company StrawberryFrog.