How to make brand purpose truly effective

Image Credit: Liwa Content Driven

Over the last decade, enough has been said about the importance of brand purpose. A reason why a brand exists beyond making a profit was popularised in 2011 by Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer for P&G. 

In evaluating the WARC Effectiveness Brand Purpose of 2023, we felt a sense of responsibility since our decisions could potentially set the standards for the upcoming years. 

This responsibility was amplified due to the fact that, while all brand purpose awards hold importance, this one is closely tied to effectiveness. We recognised that our selection of winners could easily convey a wrong message just as much as it could send out the right one.

Throughout the judging process, it became clear that numerous brands and companies are keen on harnessing the power of brand purpose. However, as we reached the end, the jury was somewhat disappointed to discover that only a few cases truly earned the right and possessed the credibility to execute a genuine, successful and effective purpose-driven marketing campaign.

Although there were many shared characteristics and valuable insights derived from the cases that performed well, there were also important lessons to be learned from those that fell short of making a lasting impact.

Here are some of the questions to consider:

Self-serving vs. Selfless

Brands need to ask themselves if their efforts are just driven by self-serving motives or if they’re genuinely committed to selflessness. 

It’s important to navigate a fine line between leveraging purpose as a marketing tool and embodying it in all aspects of their actions and values with a sincere desire to make a positive impact. While achieving business goals such as brand equity, penetration growth and market share is important for brands.

It was consistently observed in all the winning cases that not only were they genuinely selfless but meeting these objectives became a natural by product.

For example, Vaseline, true to its brand purpose of giving everybody healthy skin to live without limits, addressed the broken journey to skin healing for people of color.

Over a span of 3 years, they built a comprehensive database and arrived at a solution. In doing so, they improved cultural and brand relevance, drove behaviour change and achieved their business objectives even when sales success was not initially the primary focus.

One-off stunt vs. long-term commitment

Brand purpose is neither a passing trend nor a one-off marketing stunt or campaign. It requires strategic long-term commitment. Using the marketing function as a means to turn a non-purpose-oriented organisation into a purpose-driven one or using brand purpose solely as an awareness play or as a one-off campaign designed for industry recognition, only fuels consumer cynicism and distrust.

The fact that numerous campaigns with exceptional creative ideas and execution fell short implies that people, much like the jury, resonate and show loyalty to purpose-driven brands and companies, rather than a singular purpose-driven campaign, advertisement or stunt.

True brand purpose goes beyond one-off campaigns. It must be deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA and integrated across product development, supply chains, employee engagement and customer experiences.

For example, Lifebuoy’s brand purpose of saving lives through illness prevention drove their H-for-Hand washing campaign, which transformed into a movement over 3 years. Governments and NGOs joined in promoting hand washing in early childhood education to future-proof disease outbreaks.

Advertising vs. act-vertising

There has been an overwhelming influx of purpose advertising often diluting important topics such as mental health, gender equity, reduced inequalities, climate action and sustainability. Despite a significant number of entries analysed, only six emerged as winners, marking a decline compared to the previous year.

Numerous brands are now focusing on captivating adverts that highlight their support for and championing of worthy causes. These campaigns are often accompanied by beautifully crafted creative hooks, media effectiveness and case studies.

While these efforts are commendable, it is important to delve deeper and scrutinise the authenticity of the actions undertaken by these brands. Were these actions substantial and consistent or were they self-serving or momentary stunts?

How did the transformative behaviour of these brands catalyse a widespread and change in the attitudes and behaviors of others?

Authentic brand purpose revolves around accountability and genuineness, placing a strong emphasis on brand doing rather than brand saying.

For example, let’s consider Hypo Toilet Cleaner, a Nigerian challenger brand that took ground-level actions to address pressing sanitation issues. They partnered with the government and mobilised Gen Z volunteers to rescue unsanitary toilets.

Their efforts may not have been glamorous or accompanied by creative hooks but a simple Google search and a visit to their social media page are enough to authenticate their genuine actions. On the other hand, Air Wick with its One Square Foot initiative, together with people, reseeded 130MM square feet of disappearing wildflower habitats. 

A great creative idea and execution vs. strongly embedding with the brand’s DNA

Today we’re in a landscape where people are tired with DEI, sustainability and purpose press releases, social media posts, ad hoc donations, statements pledging to do better and one-off brand campaigns with an element of brand purpose in them. 

Distinguishing between CSR and purpose is essential. It can’t be, here’s a specific cause, let’s take it up and make it big. Similarly, while creative excellence is welcomed, especially in an era plagued by brand activism burnout and compassion fatigue, it can’t be just that. 

Brand purpose is truly embedded in what the brand wants to do over a longer term, permeating throughout the entire organisation. It’s not a tick-box exercise but an ongoing process that requires a profound understanding of the communities being served, perhaps reinventing new ecosystems or evolving perspectives, attitudes and behaviour.

For example, Stayfree, a feminine hygiene brand in India, undertook the mission of breaking taboos and normalising period conversations by involving men in the dialogue, to build a world where no girl feels embarrassed of periods. Similarly, Dell ventured into creating the world’s first voice banking book, enabling individuals with motor neuron disease to retain their voices even after losing the ability to speak.

Achieving true effectiveness in brand purpose is a challenging endeavor. The key is not in searching for a cause but identifying an issue that aligns with your business, where you are in a great position to solve it, while driving a positive bottom line. 

Perhaps, brand purpose is not treated as a badge to look good but rather integrated into the essence of your company with authenticity and passion.

The goal of a purpose-driven company is not to craft and tell a story but rather as a natural outcome to become one.

By Rohit Arora, General Manager & Head of Strategy, Liwa Content Driven