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What is your purpose here?

22 May 2013

It wasn’t that long ago that brands with a clear social or environmental purpose were seen as marginal or flaky. Today, brands perceived as lacking either are viewed as anti-social and destructive. Now, every brand has to take an active approach to its social reason for being.

A social purpose is not something that an organisation can bolt on. It has to come from the very heart of its reason for being. People have questioned the very purpose of banks. Many of these financial organisations have made it clear that they exist solely for their owners and shareholders, rather than for the people from whom they make their profits – customers. Yet surely, society once saw the creation and growth of banks as a good thing. Prosperous societies needed banks to keep money flowing, so that businesses could develop and individuals could save. There was a clear social purpose based on providing services to businesses and citizens. How has that been lost? The 1990s and 2000s saw banks investing in presenting a human face to consumers. Yet the way most banks behaved did not match the purpose they were presenting. The latter was cosmetic, so much ‘green backwash’.

Clearly, having a social purpose isn’t just the domain of the ‘good’, entrepreneurial brands. Some of the household names we take for granted today were actually the names of people with big vision to bring to market products that could create progress and improve lives. Ford, Cadbury, Sainsbury, Lever.

Appalled by the number of children suffering from intestinal disorders at the end of the First World War, and encouraged by the research of Elie Metchnikoff, Isaac Carasso started manufacturing yoghurt, using ferments from the Pasteur Institute and selling his products on prescription in Barcelona pharmacies. Danone was born.

Objecting to the way cosmetics companies portrayed women and tested their ingredients and products on animals, Anita Roddick set up The Body Shop with a mission for social and environmental change. She showed that a company selling mainstream products could generate positive change and fly the flag for this corporate role in social purpose.

Despite these pioneers, there is a huge gap to cross for many organisations, whose leaders just don’t seem to get what they are being told. Statistics in Marketing Week show that 97% of people would think more positively about a company that contributed to community, yet 37% feel that actual business community involvement is poor. And still, CSR is nowhere near the top of the agenda in business meetings. We’re still in the largest Western economic recession ever. But getting out of it successfully will depend on how organisations and communities interact in ways other than the economic.

Identifying the purpose of brand has the power to re-energise it both internally and with consumers. Purpose isn’t myopic. It’s not only about your point of difference to competitors. It’s about the difference you can make in people’s lives. It’s where your strengths are as an organisation and brand, where your passions intersect with the needs of your audience.