What if Brand Purpose is a Binding Force, not a Motivating Force?

A few opinionated thoughts and semi-coherent questions with a lot of disparate links: What if brand purpose is a far weaker force than the industry would have us believe?

One that can bind employees together and provide a lattice for growing unified culture that leads to stronger, more sustainable organizations? But, at the same time, one that simply does not extend to motivating your customers to purchase, customers who do not buy your why, but what you actually sell?

What if brand purpose isn’t one of the critical decision-making factors that motivate purchase, but simply helps us affirm our purchase as a good decision afterwards, mitigating buyer’s remorse? What if brand purpose is, at best, just a kind of minor friction remover before purchase? Is it ever a genuine facilitator of that ever-elusive “brand loyalty”? What is the ultimate purpose of brand purpose then, and is the juice ever really worth the squeeze? Or is this still essentially a PR exercise for most? Is brand purpose then not simply another component of the grand illusion used to provide cover for preserving the status quo instead of changing the world?

What is it that we expect brand purpose to really achieve? Is it an actual functional component of brand identity? Does it consistently produce the same kind of results and effects or do they fade or grow over time? Even for those who have translated their purpose into activism, is it realistic to expect that activism to translate into sustainable sales? Studies tell us that younger consumers buy more on reputation, but we know that people of all ages often say one thing and yet do or buy another.

How do we imagine brand purpose influencing purchase in an online shopping universe? Is it really true that as long as we’re “in the right place, at the right time, in front of the right audiences” we can sell consumers practically anything, even if the creative that supports it is laughably incapable of attracting attention otherwise? Are we confident that Google, Facebook, and others are really delivering on that “right moments” promise even some of the time for most people? How does purpose function here?

I will always challenge those who describe the construct of brand as just some flimflam to numb the brain to sleep before critical decisions can or have to be made, or some nefarious device to manipulate people into purchasing by keying in on their darker desires. Yes, brands need to stand for something, but that something must be deeply linked with what they actually sell to generate revenue. Because the truth is that nobody really gives a damn about your brand, and that’s a good thing.

So I’m not preaching the gospel of search engine marketing miracles nor selling the snake oil of brand love. But it seems nearly impossible for most brands to elevate their purpose high enough to make it a purchase motivator without an explicit integration with the total brand identity like that of the exceptional Ben & Jerry’s.

Another possible candidate for such an integration was Tom’s Shoes and their One for One promise, though the company has stopped providing a free pair of shoes to those in need for every pair purchased, instead now offering a third of its profits to charity, considerably diminishing the consumer’s immediate connection to the purpose. We could easily imagine a real child in need getting a pair of shoes when we bought their products. Now we’re just told a third of the revenue from purchase is going to generic “charity,” removing the personal aspect completely.

And yet other brands have copied the Toms one-for-one model as well, without seeing any real difference in sales versus competitors—more evidence that purpose and social mission may not be the attributable and sustainable sales fuel marketers hoped they would be? Are Ben & Jerry’s the only brand that has actually made the connection more or less permanent in consumer minds?

If brand purpose ever does become some kind of stronger, purchase-motivating force, maybe it will only become so because nearly all brands in the marketplace embrace the idea as an internal culture growth lattice first, which in turn allows them to fully elevate and integrate their purpose with their brand identity in a way that measurably helps consumers desire and choose products. But if brands aren’t actually creating any real positive change in the world nor amplifying sales potential with their magical purpose, what are we doing?

Perhaps there is a three-step process of purpose-activism-sales synergy that will arise. In the meantime, the cult of purpose may burn itself out as few results are created despite the proselytizing and as shiny new marketing objects continually appear on the horizon.