By David Ward
The idea of "brand purpose" seemed to be on a fairly steady, if uneven, track "BC" (Before Coronavirus), as brands and organizations devoted more and more time and thought to what they stand for beyond serving the top and bottom lines and/or shareholders — and how to convey the message.
However, the searing combination of the pandemic, the subsequent economic fallout, and nationwide calls for dramatic societal change following the death of George Floyd has left many companies gobsmacked, wondering if what they now refer to as brand purpose is still relevant for their employees, customers, and society at large.
The turmoil has spurred many companies to join the public discourse and voice their support — in addition to providing funding and other resources — to support racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But, in doing so, many firms may be conflating being a good corporate citizen with having a brand purpose, says Doug Ryan, president of marketing solutions at RR Donnelly & Sons (RRD). "If you're reacting to events then, by definition, you're not focusing on the things that are important to the brand and may not be doing much at all for your brand purpose," he says.
Alice M. Tybout, Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, adds that responding to social issues is becoming de rigueur. "That has become table stakes," she says. "You get in trouble if you don't do it, but it's not going to differentiate you if you do."
Public statements may also lead consumers to ask what the brand is doing beyond simply issuing tweets, especially when compared to Nike, for example, which publicly lined up to support Colin Kaepernick after he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality.
"If you post something on social on behalf of your brand, consumers are going to ask, 'That's great, why haven't you been doing it before and what are you doing going forward?'" says Jay Russell, chief creative officer at GSD&M. "You can't fake this one and the more you try to insert your brand into social conversations or causes, the less it rings true."
A crisis may not be the best time for companies to stress check their brand purpose. However, for many organizations, the past few months have forced them to reexamine why their brand exists, or perhaps more important, what's needed to better articulate their purpose.
"There are many companies that come to us with a good idea of why they're here," says Gary Kopervas, SVP brand strategy and innovation at brand consultancy 20nine. "But there are also a lot of clients we worked with that had been acquired or done an acquisition and now need to make sense of it."
"I believe that customers will remember the companies that were there for them during this crisis, offering support and advice to get through these unprecedented times."
— Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and PR officer at Ally Financial
Kopervas says 20nine guides these companies through a discovery process so they have a tight handle on what distinguishes their brand and can then better align their business practices with a particular purpose.
But this process to develop or improve brand purpose can't be simply marketing-driven. "If you don't have buy-in at the top, it becomes more of a gimmick," Tybout says. "And consumers can pick that up pretty readily."
To be sure, there are various metrics used to provide companies with a general sense of whether a brand purpose resonates with consumers, including brand affinity, brand preference, brand loyalty and, to some degree, net promoter scores.
Tybout, who recently worked with Jim Stengel, the former CMO at Procter & Gamble who now runs think-tank/consultancy Jim Stengel Company, while editing a chapter in the book Kellogg on Branding in a Hyper-Connected World, adds: "Things will not look the same with brand affinity or net promoter score, though probably directionally they'll be the same. No single indicator is going to be perfect, but if a consumer likes your brand purpose, they're more likely to like the brand more and be more brand loyal."
Role for Agencies
Most advocates stress that, for it to go beyond lip service and be truly effective, brand purpose has to originate with the CEO and the rest of the C-suite and then be incorporated throughout the company. But agencies insist they have a valuable role to play in the process.
"The agency's role is to help brands that have drifted away from the original intent of the founders," GSD&M's Russell says. "A brand generally knows more about themselves than any agency is ever going to, so we work to usually get them back on track and explain their purpose can't be just to make money."
Kopervas adds an objective view from a third-party can be a valuable tool, but cautions that even after a brand purpose is fine-tuned, not every company will feel the need to attach the company to every last issue preoccupying the country. "Not every brand has a purpose that is all about corporate social responsibility," he says. "It may be around quality or craftsmanship and standing behind what you do. It's not all going to change the world."
Brand Purpose in Uncertain Times
For digital financial services company Ally Financial, which fine-tuned its brand purpose in 2016 under the tagline "Do It Right," one of the major goals was to focus all of its businesses under one brand promise, says chief marketing and PR officer Andrea Brimmer.
"It was meant to demonstrate our relentless focus on customers and commitment to providing leading products and services," Brimmer says. "We've adjusted since then, but it is all centered on our mission to provide the digital products, technology, and services to help everyone achieve their best future."
The pandemic and the groundswell throughout the U.S. to legitimately address racial injustice have provided a path to put the company's mission and brand promise to be a true ally to customers and communities into practice.
"Our relief program is the most comprehensive in the industry, focused on our consumer and auto-dealer customers," Brimmer says. "Additionally, we are donating $3 million to respond to critical needs identified by our community partners, with a focus on our hometown locations of Detroit and Charlotte."
Ally Financial is also donating to other causes focused on the economic mobility of Black Americans. "I believe that customers will remember the companies that were there for them during this crisis, offering support and advice to get through these unprecedented times," Brimmer adds.
Ryan from RRD says that it doesn't hurt to ponder how a company's brand purpose aligns with current events, but adds that the internal role brand purpose plays is far more important.
"To me, the measure of effective brand purpose is if that purpose is impacting product selection or product development," he says. "If it's only being used for identification or as a new tagline, that's a sign that you don't really have brand purpose."
Brand purpose should also guide how the company chooses to grow, especially if they're in a category with a lot of competition. "Brands can sometimes get driven off their purpose by trying to match what competitors are doing," Tybout says. "Your brand purpose should provide an umbrella for your entire range of products."
And while every company wants to make the world a better place and improve lives, the idea of a "brand" can't be a vague ideal or so aspirational that it fails to reflect consumers' day-to-day experience with the brand. "Make sure your brand purpose is specific and connected to your business," Brimmer says. "You can't drive meaning for your customers without those two components."