Think Before Jumping On The Brand Purpose Bandwagon


Most marketing experts I know would immediately agree that the One-Size-Fits-All approach is poor marketing practice. Further, they would argue that each brand has a unique angle, a unique story to tell, and a unique way to connect with consumers. Or should have, in order to succeed.

And yet, this is exactly what the marketing world is perpetuating by blindly jumping on the “brand purpose” bandwagon, the latest shiny object and “miracle solution” in the industry. Apparently, a brand now needs a brand purpose to succeed, so the narrative goes. There is even selective data to support that.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a brand having a purpose. Some brands actually thrive because of their purpose. In some instances it can be an extremely powerful strategic starting point to guide the brand’s activities and to mobilize its employees and stakeholders. And I would argue that a stronger industry focus on purposeful brands that want to create a bigger impact on the world will ultimately help our culture evolve and benefit everyone. So, it can be a very powerful tool if used appropriately.

The problem is that this concept is now offered as the one size fits all solution to every brand in every category out there (there are now 272,000,000 search results on Google for “brand purpose” already). And the concept itself is often misunderstood. Sometimes it’s used as the new word for “values” or “higher emotional benefits”(which it is not), sometimes it just refers to cause marketing (which it is not). Facebook recommends using it for brands that want to advertise on its platform and every communication agency has become a “purpose expert” overnight (just like a few years ago, everyone became a social media expert overnight). I recently had someone pitch me an idea to launch a new brand of (toilet) paper that would be “purpose-based” and in the process finally answer the universal question of “why do people need toilet paper?” Seriously?

At FTT, we like to think about it a little differently. Instead, we think about every brand as having a “center of gravity” of sorts- an edge that makes it unique based on its situation, history, the equity is has built over time, the type of benefit or experience it provides and its ability to connect with consumers. Sometimes this “center of gravity” can be a powerful brand purpose. More often than not it is not. In fact, our own research shows that a brand purpose is only one of 26 proven effective ways to position a brand. In other words, by zeroing in on a brand purpose from the get-go without doing your due diligence, you’re leaving out 96% of available options at your disposal to position your brand in a relevant and differentiating way. Not a smart way to make decisions and run a business, is it?

This purpose-only approach would be the equivalent to having a doctor always recommend to all his patients a “surgical appendix removal” without even bothering to examine them first. Or having a mechanic always suggest new tires to all his customers when the engine light is on and without bothering first checking the cars. Absurd, isn’t it? Yet that is exactly what many in the industry are currently doing.

And of course, choosing purpose to guide your brand’s activities doesn’t give you a license to not do your due diligence. Now, none of you readers would ever do something like this, but many communication agencies believe it does. In fact, a brand purpose can easily become the “lazy marketer’s tool”. All you have to do is to ladder up your brand’s benefit by asking “why” a couple of times, and voila, you have a higher brand purpose everyone will agree to, will feel fuzzy about and feel inspired by (with that approach even a brand of toilet paper becomes a source of happiness and a  way to better the world). I’ve seen this happen many times. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that it is going to help you build your brand and business.

By reading this article you might come to the conclusion that we at First The Trousers are not big fans of “brand purposes and “purpose-driven brands”. This couldn’t be further from the truth and we’ve successfully repositioned several of our clients’ brands around the purpose of their founders. However, we are also contrarian and become suspicious of this herding behavior that characterizes the communication and consulting industry.  In fact, in our experience, staying away from the crowd and groupthink is the best way to successfully position a brand and build a business, which is ultimately what we are here for.

What are your beliefs and experiences around “brand purposes”. Let us know in the comment section. 

This post is the first of a series of articles that will challenge widespread accepted beliefs in the industry including “the consumers, not the corporations, own a brand”, “people want a conversation with brands”, “positioning is dead”,etc..


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