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The Purpose of Purpose

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It seems like a lot of brands are starting to understand that making the most money isn't an emotionally engaging reason to exist. Certainly, making money is one of the purposes of a brand, but it's a purpose that doesn't work well as the center of a rich, emotional relationship between the brand and its customers. And ironically, brands that achieve that kind of rich, emotional relationship with their customers find it a lot easier to make money. If you think of a brand as a character in a story, the character that exists only to make money is generally the villain--which is pretty much how a large segment of the audience is coming to view most very large brands. The audience understands that a brand needs to make money, but that's not a sufficient reason to care about a brand.

Brands that connect powerfully with their audiences on an emotional level seem to share a key trait: they have a purpose above and beyond just making money. They care about something alongside the rational, commercial transaction at the center of their business. This observation has started a number of large businesses down the path of looking for causes to support in order to build a sense that their brands have altruistic urges and a larger sense of purpose. Hence the explosion in pink ribbons and green claims on a shockingly wide assortment of products. Purpose is the new black. But I believe there's more to it than that. From a branding perspective, some purposes are better than others. Not because they are more altruistic, more noble or pure, but because the purpose suggests a reason to believe that the brand is better at what it does than a competing brand that is only out to make money.

The best brand purposes seem to suggest to the audience why a particular brand has a passion for what it does that is likely to make a difference in the quality of the product. When Philips partners with the Susan G. Komen foundation and creates a portable pink DVD player to call attention to the fight against breast cancer, I can find that admirable, but supporting that cause gives me no reason to suspect that what Philips cares about as a brand enables them to produce better electronics than any other company. Interestingly, the purpose you find on Philips' website is "to intimately understand the needs and aspirations of consumers and customers in order to deliver innovative solutions." In other words, Philips tries to figure out what I want and sell it to me. As a consumer, I don't find much in that purpose that takes me beyond the money story.

Apple, on the other hand, does not seem to have a single, clear cause with which they align their brand, but they do seem to have a reason for being above and beyond just selling computers. Apple seems focused on making technology a freeing experience for people rather than just a useful one. From their famous 1984 commercial through to the introduction of the iPhone, Apple seems focused on making the computing experience liberating, intuitive, enjoyable and human. Their stated purpose is "to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind." This purpose connects them to a growing segment of the audience who use their computers for reasons other than pure functionality and who believe that Apple makes better computers because of their passion for bringing a human touch to technology.

3 Comments

Very insightful, as always. The key takeaways for me are -

1) Cause-marketing seems superficial and shallow compared to a true purpose-based approach like Apple's. Consumers are beginning to see cause-marketing as yet another marketing tactic that has nothing to do with delivering true brand value.  

2) Purpose doesn't have to be altruistic or philanthropic. It simply means that the brand stands for a strong set of values and philosophy that consumers can either opt into or out of. It means that the brand is not afraid to alienate/offend some segments of the population. It is about putting a stake in the ground and demonstrating integrity by sticking to that POV.

I think it is spot on—your Philips vs. Apple example is brilliant. To me the purpose is the higher order benefit the brand gives to the world, rooted in the heritage of the brand. And it needs to actively improve life in some way, and inspire meaningful goals for all involved in the brand. Apple does that beautifully, Philips less so.

David,

thanks for keeping in touch with me and sharing this interesting essay. For me "making money" never would be a good reason for any corporation to justify its existence......as this is pure me too. So, without a clear purpose that goes beyond making money, companies will find it very difficult to survive long term...particularly in a post material society that starts to evolve (due to crisis etc.). So, consumers having choices amongst similar products from various manufacturers, will certainly prefer those from a company with a clearly articulated purpose that resonates with them. And since they have become tech and marketing savy, they tend to sense the difference between those artificial attempts to generate purpose as in the Philips case and Apple's more naturally flowing, closer to the core purpose.

Think there is another strong benefit in having a strong purpose....and that is to focus and provide guidance for internal stakeholders....which is why I like P&G's new purpose (delighting more consumers in more markets more completely) driven approach.

Happy holidays and best regards

Stefan

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