Purpose-led Brands: The Agency Perspective

August 12th, 2021 | Wahn Yoon, President and Chris Dacyshyn, Co-Executive Creative Director, Bleublancrouge Toronto

I recently attended a ‘global digital summit’ for marketers that was an eye-opener. Aside from the usual tech glitches, the artificial environment of having “roundtables” with no tables and trying to meet other professionals without being able to break bread together – there was a theme that ran through the conference that excited and inspired me: Purpose.

All through the three days, the “P” word was used again and again, by agency leaders, senior marketers and consultants. As though they had all caught the bug, as it were, and were spreading it around. Why? Because many at the conference recognized that today, consumers and employees alike (especially those in Gen Y and Z) expect brands to be purposeful. It is now the requirement to remain relevant in this era of social change and heightened consciousness.

Some at the conference even noted that investment firms have used verbiage such as “contribution to society” and “bringing value to human society through your products, services and operations” through more than just philanthropy. In fact, many global investment firms are now using purpose as a key criterion to guide their companies’ investment decisions. The CEO of investment firm Blackrock, Larry Fink, stated: “a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. “

Going back to my experience at the conference, however, I noticed that the moment we entered any serious conversation on the topic, it was largely empty rhetoric. To quote the great Gertrude Stein, “There was no there, there.” No one had a coherent definition of brand purpose or purpose-driven marketing. There were few case studies or examples of people doing it well or doing it with any depth.

So what is a purpose-driven brand, or purpose-driven marketing?

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what something is not, before you talk about what it is. Purpose is not:

  • A COVID-19 campaign that tells consumers what makes a brand relevant during the pandemic;
  • A heritage campaign talking about your time-honoured origin story and values as a brand;
  • A corporate contribution to a cause or philanthropy. (You should be doing this anyway as a good corporate citizen, it is table stakes.)

If that’s not purpose, then what is it? My colleague, Chris Dacyshyn, Co-Executive Creative Director at BBR Toronto, has immense experience in this area, and the following is what she had to say in answer to this question:

I believe a brand is purpose-led when it becomes the devoted champion of a societal belief or unmet need that is a natural extension of its own DNA.

In some ways, purpose is what a brand really should have been doing all along, besides providing a service or good.

While inventing, shaping and guiding purpose-driven platforms like Nike, the Dove Self-Esteem Project and Campaign for Real Beauty, Hellmann’s Real Food Movement and Huggies “No Baby Unhugged”, I have discovered purpose is far from an exact science. Nor is it for every brand.

But, for brands that successfully find their purpose, there’s no going back. In fact, I’m convinced the entire world will never go back. Purpose is here to stay because consumers have had a taste of it and now demand it.

Studies have shown that brands with purposeful conviction significantly outperform their purposeless counterparts. And yet, we often hear business leaders being dismissive of purpose because they consider it an overused marketing strategy. But isn’t that kind of like saying we’re going to stop focusing on profit because it’s an overused strategy? Or let’s abandon our pursuit of quality products because everyone’s doing it?

The best creative agencies can help identify purpose, bring it to the surface, shape it into something wonderful and shout it from the rooftops with great conviction. But purpose can’t be invented and brought to bear by an agency the way that ad constructs can. It’s up to brands to live and breathe their purpose before, and long after, the agency comes along.

When Nike did “Dream Crazy” with Colin Kaepernick, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Nike had long been supporting diversity through their athletes.

Patagonia is “in business to save our home planet”. But this isn’t something their agency pulled out of a hat. It’s something Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has believed in all his life.

Patagonia, Nike and all successful purposeful brands recognize that they must regularly reinforce their commitment with meaningful deeds, not just words. They also recognize it is almost impossible to walk away from their commitment because brand loyalists would feel betrayed. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.

Does purpose always have to be about social consciousness? I don’t think so. One of my favourite examples from over 120 years ago is the Michelin Guide. A tire company not only invented the idea of travelling for pleasure (while wearing out tires), it championed the importance of experiencing the wider world around us.

Today, virtually every talk-worthy brand that’s being born has purpose at its core. The entire world is being held accountable for its actions and brands are no exception. It’s about time.

For more about being a purpose-led brand, ACA members can log in to access the recording and slide deck from Wahn Yoon’s July 15 webinar: Brands with Purpose: Do’s and don’t’s of developing a purpose-led brand.