There I sit, with my team and my friend who also happens to be my client. He is running a profitable 20-year-old company with a good customer base. He is making a good living; his company has a good reputation for quality. His business is sailing smoothly and yet, here he is, having an identity crisis. He thinks it is time to recreate the identity because his company doesn’t have a distinctive look. His marketing materials are outdated and unpleasant to the eye (in his words, but I couldn’t agree more). He feels a new look is needed; we all nod in eager agreement.
We begin with a single, seemingly simple question. “Why do you want a new look?” Silence. We take this for thinking. We lean in, eager to learn his deepest darkest branding desire. “I want a new logo and a website.” More nodding. We love new logos and websites. Yes, we can do both, but back to the question: Why? Silence. We start becoming slightly uneasy. He doesn’t know why. Surely he must know why? Finally, he looks at us, and there it is: “I just want it to look better, my brand is old.”
Look better? Is that the reason? We froze. It wasn’t the earth-shattering reason we were expecting. I stole a glance on the side table where I had put my half read copy of Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. The golden circle started circling in front my eyes, at the heart of which, I could clearly see the ‘WHY’ and I wondered, why don’t we question, why don’t we look for a purpose? In my friend’s case, looking better is not a why. It might be a goal; a lame one. But it is not a measurable, actionable, purposeful direction. Looking better is, to put it bluntly, like putting lipstick on a duck. He needed to go deep, go all millennia and find a purpose.
Purpose? But ‘Why?’ If you take a deep dive, the answer lies within the same ‘Why’.
Frederick Nietzsche once said: “He, who has a why, can endure any how.” Brands believe in that. Being the fastest car or the tastiest burger is not enough. Brands today, have to stand for something but that something cannot be just anything either. When Nike launched their ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, they attracted both admirers and nay-sayers. While a section of society applauded the brand for taking a risk and ‘standing for something’, there were those who turned the spotlight on the brand’s apparent hypocrisy. Detractors pointed out that a brand accused of running sweatshops cannot take the high ground when it comes to the rights of African Americans.
This is exactly the minefield that brands traverse today.
To remain relevant to Millennials, brands have to be purpose-led but in the age of the internet and social media, it is easy to stumble and fall if a brand’s heart is not in the right place. Put simply, customers are making the transition from intention to action. For years, they have been saying they want to shop more responsibly and are prepared to pay more to do so and now, they are putting their money where their mouth is.
The opportunity for brands is huge. ‘Aspirational consumers want to choose brands that “have a clear purpose and act in the best interests of society.” Yet, many of them could not name a single brand that reflected a deeper sense of purpose – and this means that if your brand doesn’t have a strong sense of purpose, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant. There are so many businesses that claim to have an authentic purpose that we are already suffering from ‘purpose-wash’ and even ‘purpose fatigue’.
This is why Toms Shoes is one of the most popular brands among young consumers. They ooze purpose and their business model is set up with a wider societal purpose and clear values. Recently, Nike (Hong Kong) collaborated with ESKYIU Playkits, an interactive exhibition aimed at examining the notions of play and sustainability and providing a platform for cultural exchanges. In the exhibition, Nike co-hosted the Sports Challenge and highlighted their sustainability efforts (such as the fact that 75% of all their products contain more recycled material). By taking action towards environmental sustainability and social empowerment, Nike are turning themselves into an industry leader that integrates into their customers’ daily lives. Another initiative was the launch of the Nike House of Innovation in Shanghai, aimed at taking the customer experience to another level.
Brands have always been evolutionary in nature, and purpose is not necessarily a new trend, rather an underlying current that has come into prominence lately because the customers have evolved. If brands need to be part of the consumer’s journey their purpose needs to be in sync with it.
Swedish retailer IKEA was ranked as the most innovative company in the home retail category. Their latest initiative includes a partnership with Tom Dixon (a British furniture brand specialising in lighting and home accessories) to explore the future of urban farming. The goal is to encourage people to experiment using their home space for agricultural purposes.
Additionally, IKEA opened the Planning Studio in London, which is the first of its kind and will be staffed by advisers (rather than salespeople), who will assist customers to plan their bedrooms and kitchens. IKEA is also set to open small-format stores that cater to urban consumers with curated merchandise for city living. By launching these initiatives, IKEA have positioned the brand as a solver of environmental issues.
‘Brands with Purpose’ is a Unilever marketing credo. Many of their brands, including Brooke Bond Red Label, have a strong purpose which resonates with consumers and builds brand love. Broke Bond Red Label in their communication have been at the forefront of advocacy for inclusivity. Inclusiveness is at the heart of Red Label’s brand purpose.
The above examples show that a brand’s purpose cannot be cosmetic; it has to be part of the brand’s core and not just a part of the communication.
Purposeful or purpose-led brands are often confused with ‘cause’ marketing.
Cause marketing is when a brand selects a specific cause and launches a communication based on this as part of their CSR. The cause need not be part of the brand ethos. A brand can believe in water conservation or animal welfare; yet, unless this is reflected in everything the brand does, the brand cannot be called a purposeful brand. Finding purpose means getting under the skin of the beliefs of a business; finding the ‘why’ that lies at the heart of a business; one, that goes beyond a product benefit or an empty emotional claim. It has to be linked to the history of the business and also be a focal point for the future. It has to be authentic, ownable and inspiring to customers and employees alike. Brands that claim to be purposeful need to measure. If you are committed to trying to impact the world positively, you need to measure how successful you are in doing this.
Is this a new trend? Why are brands suddenly interested in being purposeful? Most marketing experts agree that a one-size-fits-all approach is a poor marketing practice. In fact, they would argue that to succeed, every brand must have a unique angle, a unique story to tell and a unique way to connect with customers. Yet, so many brands continue to blindly jump onto the brand purpose bandwagon – the latest shiny object and ‘miracle solution’ in the industry. Brands have always been evolutionary in nature, and purpose is not necessarily a new trend, rather an underlying current that has come into prominence lately because the customers have evolved. If brands need to be part of the consumer’s journey their purpose needs to be in sync with it.
It’s almost lunch time. After a detailed and heated discussion, my friend has left, leaving with the unavoidable task – not of designing a logo or a website but of thinking of a ‘why’ for his brand. I pick up my book, take a sip of coffee and wonder why, oh why?
Sumaira Mirza is a freelance writer.