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The Purpose of Purpose

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.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery