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A demonstrator holds a cardboard sign reading "Fight today for a better tomorrow."

The enduring power of purpose

Brand purpose has been one of marketing’s big issues recently and not always in a good way. Too many brands have had #epicfails thanks to inauthentic signalling or posturing; followed by a rush of much-criticised “we care” ads at the start of the pandemic. 

At the same time, however, there have also been long-running successes. Pedigree has been helping us care about our dogs for many years, Always has built a strong track record around female confidence (coming to global prominence with the brand’s "Like A Girl" video). More recently, Uber has started its purpose journey, prioritising health workers during the pandemic and telling racists to delete its app. 

“Brands have always been the signifier of ‘a promise delivered’ for consumers. The most powerful brands are those that we, as consumers, feel belong in our world; both functionally and emotionally (because they understand us and care about what we care about). Why does purpose matter? Because it is the foundation of trust and belonging,” says MediaCom’s Global Chief Strategy Officer, Matt Mee. 

“During the pandemic many marketing talents have been reminded of their brands’ purpose. In many cases it has always been there but forgotten,” says Bayer Consumer Health Chief Marketing and Digital Officer, Patricia Corsi. 

“Brand purpose can make a positive difference when combined with strong and solid brand building fundamentals and, of course, when it is genuine and authentic. There is no point in waving the 'Purpose flag' if your product does not deliver on its most basic promises – if it cannot be found on a shelf or has a price that no one can pay.” Bayer Consumer Health Chief Marketing and Digital Officer, Patricia Corsi 

The bottom line is that 2020 and the pandemic highlight the importance of purpose rather than changing it. “Brand purpose hasn’t changed, it has always been central to a fair, responsible business. What has changed in 2020 is the world’s expectation of your brand to live up to the purpose it promises, with meaningful, measurable action. Words and intent are no longer enough, and rightly so. It is time for brands to make a tangible difference in the world,” adds Michele Oliver, Mars’ Global VP, Corporate Brand & Purpose. 

“The relationship between brands and the corporate companies that might own them is getting more and more relevant. Consumers want to know who they’re buying from, not just what they’re buying. That is why we have to understand purpose as a tool to create change inside out; it is not a marketing tool, it is a North Star to guide your business decisions, lived through your brands.”  Michele Oliver, Mars’ Global VP, Corporate Brand & Purpose 

Clearly, purpose differs from brand to brand and portfolio owners such as Bayer and Mars will have a mix of purposes based on their broad range of products, sometimes in addition to an overarching corporate purpose that sits above the brand portfolio. What matters is that each purpose is relevant to the brand and that they live up to it. 

“For Consumer Health products one of the key services we can provide to our consumers is to deliver trusted, basic information. In today’s world of fake news and the amount of information that can be found online, brands can and should provide reliable information that helps the consumers to better navigate these challenging times,” says Corsi. 

Bayer brand Canesten has been seeking to set women free from shame and discomfort, with communications focused on breaking taboo and supporting an open discussion on women’s intimate health. Most recently, that’s translated into the Vagina Academy programme which uses TikTok and social media to deliver easy to understand “classes” that take the conversation into a more pro-active mode, and with that lead to more fulfilling lives. 

At Mars, the Pedigree Adoption initiative to eradicate dog homelessness has been a win-win during this pandemic. It connects with consumers, reinforces the great role that dogs play both before and during the pandemic, but crucially it also gets dogs out of shelters and into loving homes. 

These examples highlight the power of purpose as something that connects us with brands at a level that goes well beyond a simple purchase decision. 

“Whether it’s the health of my family, the well-being of my beloved pet, the security of my finances, the future of the planet itself; the brands that have the most enduring places in our lives are the ones that understand and nurture this. This is volatile stuff and needs to be handled with care.”  Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom, Matt Mee 

For Corsi, getting this right means demonstrating a commitment on a different timescale to that typically assigned by the industry. Purpose cannot be a single campaign. 

“I advocate that we focus on consistency, congruency and empathy. Consistency, looking at marketing from a more medium and long-term point of view and allowing for better informed decisions overall for a brand. Congruency is simply put non-negotiable, have your brand actions, focus, and investments in line with your promises. Finally, empathy supports a consumer focus approach serving the best interest of the people we serve – our consumers and customers,” she says. “If we do that, we will surely be playing a critical part also for our employees. And in our case at Bayer fulfilling our purpose to deliver ‘Health for all, Hunger for none’. Purpose and business progress must go hand in hand. It is possible, and it is achievable.“ 

Mars’s Oliver argues that all brand purpose now needs to comply with three governing principles: 

  • First, they need to come from a solid foundation, that it’s not a ‘one off’ cause-related marketing campaign. The commitment required means you will need to find new ways of working, new investments and new forms of measurement to prove that you’re really living up to your Purpose. 

  • Second, the primary emphasis should be on acts not advertising. First, you need to define what difference your brand can genuinely make in the world, take action, and then start thinking about advertising. This is not easy but makes all the difference. 

  • Third, you need to incentivise the business to be aligned with your purpose. At Mars, executive performance is measured against the positive societal impact our business and brands make in addition to our financial performance. 

“At Mars, we’re guided by our Purpose ‘The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today’. It recognises the critical role that business has to play in creating the world we want tomorrow, but also that it takes action today, every day, to get there,” she concludes.