Brands in essence

Brand purpose has been a big trend in marketing for some time now. Like all trends, it has its champions (most prominently, Unilever CEO Paul Polman) and its detractors (Marketing Week columnist and professor, Mark Ritson, for one). Either way, it’s not going anywhere soon.

For those late to the party, ‘brand purpose’ is the idea that brands should strive to make a more positive contribution to society than just turning a profit. In contrast to CSR, a brand’s purpose should extend from the product; i.e. how the brand makes a profit.

Supporting a good cause – however worthy – is not considered a brand purpose if it doesn’t relate to what the brand does. You’ll notice a slight paradox here: purpose is about more than just making profits, yet it must also derive from how those profits are made…

Contradictions aside, campaigns around purpose have started to come downstream from original pioneers like Patagonia and Dove. Recent positioning work has seen us testing ‘purpose-based’ territories for all sorts of brands. And the reaction from consumers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Without fail, the ‘purpose one’ will generally come out second or top in a group scenario. And that’s not just a group effect; one-on-one they’ll tell you the same. It’s because purpose appeals to our ‘ideal self’ (who we would like to be), rather than our ‘real self’ (who we actually are).

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as the type of people who would pay more for the responsible brand – rather than opting for the cheapest, or the most premium, or the most fashionable. But, in reality, these factors exert a greater hold over us than we would often like to admit.

Unfortunately, brands themselves are also guilty of idealising consumer behaviour. The assumption is that by appealing to our better instincts, we will naturally flock to their product/service. That’s not to say consumers aren’t seeking responsible behaviour from brands; rather, that purpose needs to be thought of within a broader set of choice factors. Moreover, established ideas around aspiration remain sticky – in some categories consumers really do just want to feel cool/stylish/sophisticated rather than virtuous.

That said, when brand and cause are aligned, purpose can be a powerful way to enhance a brand’s offering.

Ikea has given new expression to founder Ingvar Kamprad’s purpose to ‘create a better everyday life for the many people’ through its commitment to sustainability. But rather than simply using it as a comms platform, the company has embedded it into every aspect of the business – from packaging to product to store design.

Crucially, Ikea hasn’t changed what it stands for; by folding sustainability into its existing purpose, it’s enhanced what it offers in the process.

This approach to purpose recognises what drives consumer behaviour at a basic level (affordable, stylish furniture i.e. the ‘real self’) while also allowing consumers to indulge their ‘ideal self’ by framing the brand as a sustainable choice.  

As more and more brands throw themselves headlong into purpose, Ikea’s thoroughgoing yet realistic approach surely presents the most viable way forward for the concept.