What Bill Murray can teach us about brand purpose

How well defined and meaningfully expressed your brand purpose is will increasingly make the difference with all your stakeholders, says Daniel Shepherd

By Daniel Shepherd, head of strategy at PHD UAE

Remember Bill Murray in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day? As a weatherman sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in a small Pennsylvania town, he tries to win over a news anchor played by Andie McDowell. Unsuccessfully. Repeatedly. Living in a Groundhog Day. Oddly, aside from the obvious parallels with our lockdown existences, there is a lesson in this tale for business and marketing leaders. One about purpose and what it means for a company or a brand.

While purpose is nothing new, it has gained recent prominence in business leadership circles. Last year, the Business Roundtable ­­– an association of CEOs of America’s largest companies ­– redefined what it sees as the purpose of business and corporations. For the previous 22 years, its position on the purpose of a company was based on Milton Friedman’s economic theory and the pursuit of profit for the sole benefit of stockholders. Now, it says the responsibility of a business is to create customer value, invest in employees, nurture fair and ethical supplier relationships, and care for the community and environment. While long-term shareholder value still features, it’s no longer the sole yardstick.

A look at the recent entries to the World Advertising Research Center’s Brand Purpose award competition helps in gauging how well businesses are doing with purpose. Entries could be arranged in three piles. The first was for brands that had found a unique insight with a social conscience. The second was for those that sought to bring their brand purpose to play for good in a challenging context. The last pile was reserved for brands that looked at purpose as a band-aid to cover up prior corporate sins.

The winners to this competition came from the first two piles. Brands in the last pile ought to be ashamed and need to take a long hard look at themselves. In the post-pandemic world, whitewashing simply isn’t going to cut it anymore. Trust, which comes from transparency and honesty, has risen to the top of most people’s priority list.

The brands that unearthed powerful and, at times, genuinely moving insights went on to run brilliant campaigns, often around seasonal moments. A lot of entries were related to Ramadan campaigns, the Holy Month being synonymous with charity and a focus on the less fortunate. What they clearly possessed in integrity didn’t necessary translate into genuine purpose. Being a purposeful brand means having a purpose that runs deeply across the entire organization. It certainly goes beyond an annual CSR campaign, however emotional and beautifully executed.

The real winners are the companies that truly align their purpose with relevant and meaningful causes, such as the UN Sustainability Goals, and adapt every aspect of their business accordingly. Not only do they stand a much better chance of achieving their purpose, they will also convince more people to join forces. The more compelling cases were found in the second pile.

With Covid-19 redesigning our ‘normal’, it’s arguably clearer than ever that we need brands to adopt a genuine sense of purpose. These are not only thriving during the crisis but will fare better when the crisis is successfully addressed. They will shape this new normal everyone is talking about, because as much as an observation, it is also a need for a readjustment.

In its book Overthrow 2, published last year, PHD explored how purpose is at the very core of a new wave of successful Challenger brands. It featured remarkable businesses that propelled their brands into the public psyche with conscience rather than just communications. Purpose comes in a number of different forms, with different goals and at different scales. What makes the truly purposeful Challengers stand out is that their purpose is part of their DNA. It is obvious in their HR policies, their supply chain, their packaging and, of course, their communications strategies.

Purpose isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s not seasonal, it’s not a box you tick. It’s not even a response to a crisis. Purpose for brands, like people, is a calling. It’s the reason you get up in the morning and keep going time and again until you achieve what you set out, above and beyond mere profits.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Groundhog Day, Murray inevitably wins Andie McDowell’s character over and breaks the spell. How? He simply had to let go of his opportunistic moves, his crass seduction techniques and cheap chat-up lines. In short, he looked deep within himself, focuses on his real purpose and did the right thing.