Beyond The Purpose Of Brand Purpose

Kevin KeohaneDecember 19, 20186 min

A decade ago, the whole idea of “purpose” inspired brand development and management was far from mainstream. A few visionary companies — starting with Johnson & Johnson and its famous 1943 credo, through market leaders such as Patagonia and Interface — were arguably way ahead of the curve by virtue of inspired individual leadership. Some others abstractly understood that purpose —the “why” they do what they do — was strategically the smartest foundation for expressing their brand in order to be distinctive. And still, as recently as five years ago (and around the time my book on purpose-led branding, “Brand & Talent,” was published), most organizations still kept their brands divorced from their raisons d’etre — perhaps nodding to purpose in a list of brand values or core messages, but certainly not positioning it front and center.

How things have changed. After 2015 there was an explosion in purpose-driven branding. Purpose indexes were created, thought leadership was crafted. Ex-Procter & Gamble marketer Jim Stengel published a must-read book called “Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies,” then turned it into a consulting business. “In today’s business world, purpose is the go-to discipline for a reason,” he states on his website (accessed December 18, 2018).

The Power Of Purpose

Flash forward to 2019, and you now have to look far and wide to find a brand consultant not talking about the importance and value of purpose. It has gone from a positioning option that was right for some but not for all … to being the only game in town.

Partially, this is in response to increased transparency among investors, consumers and other stakeholders. Partially, as Stengel notes, it is fundamentally a powerful way to drive not only brand but also business strategy by providing a strong backbone for innovation and transformation. Partially, it is increasingly seen to be a key factor in attracting and motivating high-performing talent.

The real power of purpose, though, could well lie in its ability to provide a clear, unequivocal North Star for organizational decision-making, ranging from research and development to market entry, from customer experience delivery to talent attraction and management. In a world craving authenticity, brands that connect everything — everything — back to purpose can (and do) achieve outsize impact and performance. Nothing “partial.”

Of course, as with anything brand and marketing, there will always be those who jump on this particular bandwagon inauthentically, much as some companies have “greenwashed” their images without actually changing their environmental practices or impact. These brands will purport to enshrine an aspirational sense of serving a higher good through their brands, marketing and communications; but, in reality, they have not substantially altered their strategies, ways of working, core beliefs or operating models. Sadly, and without a hint of irony, most of these “charlatan brands” that try to paint lipstick on the proverbial pig will underperform as a result, and probably cease to exist altogether, eventually.

The Purpose Of Power

It’s clear that purpose-driven branding has created a new plateau in terms of brand theory and philosophy. It’s also broadly clear from the data that the organizations putting purpose at the heart of their brands and businesses outperform those that don’t.

Yet it seems unlikely that purpose-driven branding is the end game. Theory and best practices evolve, and I’m skeptical that we have arrived at the end of the runway. In fact, we may be closer to the beginning of understanding how weaving purpose into strategy and operations can impact organizational success.

Coincidentally or not, the shift toward leading with purpose has occurred during a time when institutions and structures of power are rapidly transforming. Populism is on the rise, swamping political parties around the world; social media platforms have redefined who we listen to and how we connect and learn about our world; and economic power is shifting from the West toward the East — and, increasingly, to elites who control an ever-growing majority of the world’s wealth. “This configuration shift has dramatic consequences for liberal democracy,” notes the Brookings Institution, arguing that “we stand at a critical juncture.

De jure, political power continues to be alive and well as nation-states cling to the concept of sovereignty. De facto, however, political power is becoming increasingly detached from its economic and social base, and liberal democracies are losing their most important source of prosperity and legitimacy.”

In the context of this turmoil, it seems that companies would do well to each examine their purpose through an even wider-angle lens. What is the true impact of what we do — and what our investors demand — not just on our customers and employees, but on the world? What is the purpose of power?

Such questions ultimately lead us to the nexus of two forces that are all too often seen to be in opposition: ethics, in terms of acceptable and unacceptable conduct for individuals and organizations; and economics, in terms of expectations about and delivery of financial outcomes. There is a lot of runway left and plenty more to explore here. It’s likely that innovation will unfold around how to best define and express that purpose in new and valuable ways. Perhaps around how those two forces are not in opposition really.

Purpose-driven transformation where brand is at the heart of business strategy and operations, and vice versa, is a huge step in this direction; but the journey has only just begun. John Elkington, inventor of the concept of the “Triple Bottom Line” and pioneer of sustainability as most of us now define it, seems to agree: He suggests the equivalent of a “product recall” on his idea and the need for something even bigger and bolder in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

What, then, could lie beyond today’s (and tomorrow’s) purpose-led brands?

1. Purpose will be a driver for reducing and eliminating waste — not just operationally but also from the brand, marketing and communication ecosystem. Brand and business purpose will help ensure the right customers and products meet; and that the right products and services are designed in the first place. AI, data analytics and automation will drive hypersegmentation, hyperlocalization, and hyperpersonalization. This will not just drive competitive advantage in terms of product / service delivery and experience and cost savings, it will act as a driver of business model evolution.

2. Brands will be built in collaboration with customers … and with other brands. Interbrand’s 2018 Best Global Brands report explains that customer-centricity is about much more than anticipating customer needs: “Leading brands are co-creating solutions with their customers, bringing the voice of the customer into every aspect of their business and investing in future-forward customer exploration.” I’d suggest taking this even further: successful brands are going to create far more permeable and fluid relationships with other organizations of similar, shared or adjacent purposes to innovate around products, services and their shared relationships with customers.

3. Brands will look beyond “Why?” to answer: “So what?” Brands that survive and thrive will be those that make a positive impact on the world and create greater prosperity through everything they do. With the rise in living standards and creation of a consumer class in numerous emerging markets, this may seem counterintuitive. However, if a brand and business has any sense of responsibility and accountability imbued in its purpose it will increasingly need to take a “cradle-to-cradle” perspective on what it produces, how it produces it, how its consumers use it and to what purpose they use it, and what they do with it when they are done with it … and how all of this activity is affecting employees, communities, markets, even society as a whole. As the recent troubles of Facebook make evident, brands ignore their broader social impact at their own peril.


It’s increasingly clear that today you have to stand for something if you want to remain standing. The explosion in purpose-led brand and business transformation is upon us, and it is far from over. Expect to see even more dramatic examples of purpose driving organizational decision-making at virtually every intersection of brand, business, culture, society and economy.

Let’s continue the conversation, I welcome your observations on these important subjects.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Kevin Keohane, director of brand and talent strategy, PartnersCreative

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One comment

  • Kevin Keohane

    November 18, 2019 at 9:53 am

    It’s not a campaign or an initiative, and it has to be genuine. And companies drift in and out of it as their cultures shift over time – leadership has a huge role to play in staying the course or deviating from it. I share your concern that it’s become flavor of the month and now EVERYONE has some highfalutin’ purpose – and thus quite accurate conversations emerge around “woke washing.” It’s as much about intent as it is about technique…

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