During the recently concluded IAA World Congress, Paul Polman, formerly of Unilever, reiterated the role of purpose in building brands. His words resonated with modern thinking and a key pillar of my consulting practice — infusing brands with genuine societal meaning way above the professional transaction. In execution, however, brands are increasingly creating content with the perception of purpose — unable to invest in integrated experiences that are truthfully purposeful.
The Ariel ‘Share the Load’ campaign is a valuable example of this syndrome, a communication initiative purporting to be purpose. It certainly is a valuable and noble thought, attempting to induce behaviour change, especially in male-dominated societies like ours. As per published results, the outcome is significant as well, with 1.5 million men vowing to do the needful. However, a one-off endeavour as such is deeply tactical, hopefully leading to an increase in likeability and preference. Purpose is a far more fundamental intervention, communication just the manifestation and never the soul.
Red Label, from HUL, has recently launched a series of videos addressing the divide between veg and non-veg in India, spreading the message of inclusivity. Once again, fine messaging leading to compelling advertising, certain to earn the endorsement of customers and society at large. It will lead to disproportionate word-of-mouth and may even entrench relationships in the short-term certainly. Yet, the stated purpose of making India more inclusive is restricted yet again to communication.
At least in the above cases, there is a seamless category and brand connect, lending to natural credibility. Which is sorely missing in the celebrated Tough Moms, leading to record conversations but totally impossible to fathom the relevance of ‘All Out’ mosquito repellents. If instilling purpose was the desired objective, it fails conceptually as the messaging has no connection with the product.
To be fair, it is a very difficult task to build purpose in established brands, born in an era of product-based differentiation and subsequently marketed through the USP technique. The terms of engagement are well-established and any attempt to build genuine purpose must be retrofitted, as it did not hold strategic currency in earlier times. As the domain of societal goodness rested with the community welfare departments, subsequently morphing into CSR, deliberately unconnected with the core functionality of the brand. Exactly why even the most-sincere organisation like P&G or HUL must often rely on identifying a suitable cause, then building contribution and communication around it.
Brands yet to be born suffer from no such limitation and, thus, must have built-in and not retrofitted purpose. A failure to do so would be a debilitating error, as customers are increasingly veering towards relationships born out of a meaning greater than transaction. Even existing brands seeking reinvention must take this route, a fine example being WLS, the new form of Wills Lifestyle building a fresh identity through the ‘100% Natural’ route.
So, what is the route-map for building purpose? The first stage for every brand is to establish ‘Purpose as Philosophy’ — a set of fundamentals that define its existence. Body Shop is a fine example, committed to beauty products that do not damage the environment. Ikea is committed to make every day brighter, brought to life in every aspect of the experience development. Uber is definite about democratising transportation while Disney is committed to bring out the child in every adult. It is important to note that the philosophy need not always have a CSR hue, when it contributes meaningfully to betterment in living.
The second stage must be ‘Purpose as Performance’ ensuring that every leg in the fulfilment lives up to the philosophy. From sourcing to product and packaging, Body Shop walks the talk, including the fabled ‘Trade not Aid’ support programme for its stakeholders. Uber invests in training of drivers and applies technology to unite customers and vehicles in the most equitable manner. Disney goes to the ridiculous extent of not hiring men with facial hair growth in theme parks, to not scare children. Cola and beer makers are urgently experimenting with new technology to replace plastic packaging, enforcing the commitment to the environment.
The third stage, practised usually in isolation, is ‘Purpose as Persuasion’. This includes communication and activation campaigns, quite like the Ariel, Red Label and All Out. Also qualifying are brands contributing to causes upon purchase, a common practice employed tactically by large corporations. In either case, the objective is to create a perception of purpose, through messaging and short-term financial contribution. As clearly reiterated, this is sub-optimal unless the first two stages are followed. Which may be difficult for existing brands but certainly necessary and possible for new brands — many glorious examples in the digital world, including Google.
Purpose can be the most valuable tool for a brand, a compelling and sustainable point of distinctiveness. It must, however, be approached with sincerity and not opportunism – as philosophy, performance and persuasion in that sequence. The customer of today can spot fakeness from a mile, so do not try to retrofit if you have a choice.
(ShivajiDasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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