In recent years, I have worked closely with brands that take their purpose very seriously – consciously integrating a societal angle in transactional deliveries. For certain categories the connection is spontaneous but in most cases, it lacks credibility and can endanger the experiential focus. It’s thus important to stop being obsessed with instilling purpose and instead focus on brand outcomes.
The continuum of corporate societal relevance initially started with charity, moved on to corporate social responsibility and then peaked at purpose. Charity was essentially a statutory cum emotional way of giving back to the people, especially in an era when wealth was often ill gotten. It resulted in donations, schools, parks and sundry such generalised delights, socialistic in nature. But then came Michael Porter with his vision of CSR, enthusing companies to perform actions that were inarguably connected to business deliveries and thus sustainable and relevant. The wellbeing of employees, the environmental clean-up of plants and the tangible empowerment of folks with a direct impact on business were all happily included. Essentially a more accountable version of charity, as boardrooms would not take their eyes off agendas connected to the baseline.
Purpose is the smart new-age evolution of the above concepts, attempting to project social good as a tangible customer benefit, over and above the usual rational and emotional parameters. It is designed to be a positive influencer for purchase and referral, operating at a brand and not a corporate basis. For companies in the hygiene and wellness space, like Reckitt, the association is usually seamless and sufficiently genuine, as discovered first-hand during a recent corporate association. At least as a defensible claim, whether it leads to a purchase provocation remains subjective and selective. But the problem truly begins when brands start being opportunistic about purpose, treating it to be a customer benefit often in a forcible manner. This leads to dubious purpose claims, stretched and illogical, which frankly gives the entire Brand Purpose movement a very bad name.
So, here is my purposeful opinion on this matter, drawing from experience and common sense. The greatest purpose any brand can serve is to design services and products that are adequately ethical, well-performing, fairly priced, comfortably accessible, rewarding as an experience and doing least damage to the environment. In fact, the performance dimension is the most significant as customers seek value for money, whether basic or luxury, and this truly defines her relationship with the brand. So companies must focus their energies on upping the ante of customer satisfaction in an integrated transactional sense, through improvement and innovation. Every organisation has limited resources and in an increasingly competitive and fluid business environment, this is a massive ask by itself. We need to look no farther than the coronavirus debacle to believe how equilibriums changed overnight and business models were transmogrified.
The other really good reason why brands at a solo level must stop fussing about purpose is pure play credibility, with the few exceptions as already described. In this peer-to-peer customer journey era, customers are deeply wary of overpromise and marketing falsehood, as such instances are ruthlessly exposed in social and other conversational media. This can actually bring down the worth of its genuine value proposition as we tend to get cynical and suspicious, perceptions that do not augur well for longevity. As mentioned amply, companies have their hands full in constantly reinventing brand experiences and predicting the desirable outcomes, for betterment of all concerned.
Thus, in an unusual reversing of the continuum, the Brand Purpose brigade must hand over the mantle of genuine societal relevance to the CSR watchdogs, operating at a corporate and not an individual brand level. This makes oodles of sense from a boardroom, shareholder and customer perspective as there can be an integrated action plan across divisions and functions, which can be quantified and defended. We cannot exploit social virtue as a selling point when customers are truly interested in how the brand consumption impacts their personal lives tangibly, a response to ’What’s in it for me?’
In sum, I must urge brand owners to focus passionately on brand outcomes and stop chasing the mirage of brand purpose. While at a corporate-level, state-of-art CSR initiatives must genuinely walk the talk in building a sustainable future friendly organisation, genuinely sensitive to society. A fine example of how the corporate brand must work in tandem with product brands to build tangible value for all.
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