Using 'brand purpose' to market businesses is very much in vogue right now but Ryan Wallman, associate creative director at the healthcare brand creative agency Wallmark, says this does not make it a smart sales strategy.
"This is a relatively new trend and so you can understand that startups, especially those with customers into 'wellness', will be particularly susceptible to wanting to use this strategy.
"The danger is that businesses can be almost tricked into over investing in this idea when it doesn't have much effect at all on sales and if they are shown to be hypocritical in any way, it can be extremely damaging."
Ant Henderson, founder of the startup Omega3Zone UK, couldn't agree more and argues that the brand purpose should remain an unsaid core value, not a marketing stunt.
"By its very essence, your purpose is woven into the core of your business, so for brands to suddenly find this higher calling, the fact they’re now sitting in boardrooms and debating their ‘why’ all seems disingenuous.
"That’s not to say that purpose isn’t important. In the functional food / supplement sector, most founders saw an opportunity: to do something better, to offer a stronger proposition than what’s already on the market, that’s why Omega3zone exists.
"This is true purpose, and it’s driven by the individuals at the heart of the business. I see so many brands now believing they have some faux, altruistic existence because some guru said they should on the internet.
"Innovate because there’s a genuine need to innovate. Reduce your impact on the environment because it’s the right thing to do, not because it gives you the opportunity to write a BS ‘Our Story’ page and proclaim you’ll be the saviour of a million dolphins."
What about the consumer research?
Wallman adds that there's a lot of research to back the idea that brand purpose works but it's very flawed.
This opinion is backed by JP Hanson, CEO of international marketing consultancy Rouser, who says: “There’s a lot of research that's used wherein consumers say something like ‘I choose purposeful brands over ones that doesn’t stand for anything' but the problem with these surveys is that they are being asked these questions assuming all other variables are equal, so disregarding price and what the product is - which are the real things that influence choice.
“To be honest, considering the surveys are done the way they are, I’m aghast they don’t get 100% of people saying they’d choose a purposeful brand!"
Other than the fact these surveys don't take into account product quality, taste, price etc, Hanson points out that people will consistently say one thing, and do another.
"Humans have a propensity toward virtue signalling, that's answering what they believe to be 'correct' regardless of whether or not they actually hold those values in practice.
"When it is their own money on the line, purchase patterns show it’s a different matter entirely. When it comes down to it, customers really don't care."
Not only does Hanson argue that brand purpose won’t lead to sales, but he also points out it can lead to catastrophic embarrassment if consumers become aware of any contradictions between the way the company works and its supposed purpose.
He points out that in 2017, Audi initially won plaudits for its Super Bowl ad backing equal pay, until a backlash revealed that just two out of the company’s 14 executives were women.
Even when brands genuinely do do good, Hanson argues that this isn't something that will stick in consumers' minds.
“If you try to think of people that made the world a better place I’m sure you can think of a few but if I ask you to think of brands that made the world a better place, I bet you can’t think of any.
"And there’s a reason for that – brands have a lot of roles in society but world saviours is not one and it’s very presumptuous of them to claim they are. In fact, it’s quite condescending to think that consumer will buy that claim.”
The future consumer will rebel
Hanson even argues that there’s a ‘counter movement’ taking place at the moment whereby consumers don't want to be told what they should believe in and they are wising up to the fact many brands are not practising what they preach and often are only pushing a brand purpose in order to make more money.
“Consumers are saying ‘it’s not your place to tell me what to care about.”
Wallman agrees, adding that the more businesses are discovered to be hypocritical - and many are - the more consumers will become dubious about these types of claims.
Hanson points out that he is not anti-brand purpose and, in fact, brand purpose can be an effective way to drive the business when communicated internally.
“Impossible Foods, the US plant-based meat replacement brand, have a brand purpose which they communicate internally which is to eliminate all meat eating by 2035 or something like that. They don’t communicate that to the outside world but they simply concentrate on ways to encourage meat eaters to choose their products by concentrating on their price and making their products tastier than meat.
“That is the way to use your purpose to boost sales, not by communicating it literally to the consumers.”
The Halo Effect
Brand perception, Hanson argues, is most influenced by market share. He says there's evidence to show that bigger brands get higher scores in all attributes including market share simply because they are used more often and they are more visible (Eat Your Greens, Snijders. W., 2018).
“If it were the case that people bought from brands because of their purpose then brand loyalty would be way higher for purpose driven brands.”
The simple strategy
Instead of concentrating on purpose, Hanson, Wallman and Henderson all argue that brands should concentrate on their products, their pricing, making the products easy to buy and making a really good piece of creative marketing which reaches as many people as possible.
Hanson gives the example of the meat substitute brand Quorn which saw its sales grow faster than ever once it started marketing its brand to everyone, rather than just vegans and vegetarians, but asking Mo Farah to point out that it's tasty and healthy and a great source of protein for anyone.
He adds: "After the company has done all that, then they can think about communicating their purpose if they must, as long as they can walk the walk."