The biggest branding mistake too many companies make

When you think about brands with “purpose,” which come to mind?

Patagonia, probably. Maybe Lush, or Nike, or Starbucks.

The term “brand purpose” gets bandied around a lot in marketing circles, which makes sense. It’s shiny, it’s attractive, and from the outside it fits right in with our fast-paced, socially aware culture. Consumers increasingly want transparency—we know that—and brand purpose seems like the answer. It’s achingly close to the answer.

But the truth is, it’s your business, not your brand that needs purpose.

That may sound like splitting hairs, but there’s a crucial difference: while “brand purpose” is often reverse engineered onto a company as part of a consumer-facing marketing strategy, business purpose is foundational: it’s more than a message that informs your communications, it’s the reason your communications exist in the first place.

Put simply: it’s time for businesses to stop using “brand purpose” as a means to conveniently suit certain criteria, or align with social trends. Purpose needs to be built into your company from the ground up.

Enough with the virtue signaling

Organizations with business purpose as their guiding principle have sturdier foundations, and therefore a significantly longer shelf life. They’re both nimble and steadfast in their core beliefs.

Take The Body Shop, for instance. When it started in the 1970s, the company’s original vision was to sell products sourced directly from producers, which were never tested on animals, and which used only ethically-sourced, cruelty-free, and natural ingredients.

The Body Shop’s purpose – “we exist to fight for a fairer, more beautiful world” – is watertight, extending beyond a single campaign or cause. It’s simple, it’s broad, but it’s rigorous—it stands up to scrutiny. And it’s about so much more than the impression its brand makes on consumers. You won’t catch The Body Shop overstating its mission to do good in order to sell products. It doesn’t have to – we intrinsically know what it’s about, because it simply does exactly what it’s about.

Furthermore, the business’s purpose allows it to vet its actions against what’s happening in the world at present. During the 50 years since The Body Shop’s launch, what it means to fight for a fairer world has evolved, and the Body Shop has been able to grow with its audience’s understanding of fairness and beauty.

In an interview with BritishAmerican Business last year, the CEO of the Body Shop, David Boynton, spoke publicly about the value of purpose as an internal metric that informs how The Body Shop regulates its ingredients and packaging, how it treats its people, and how it responds to and learns from crises. “If you have a purpose like we do that includes the word ‘fairer’,” Boynton said, “You have to be all over things like this.”
Walking the walk

It’s little surprise that many of the brands we most associate with purpose (Dove, The Body Shop, Nudie Jeans) are also those that prioritize sustainability. Purpose and sustainability complement one another and have a positive impact on companies’ bottom lines: according to our 2021 CEO Purpose Report, four in five CEOs (83%) agree that purpose-driven companies are better at navigating sustainability than companies driven by profit-growth alone.

But when a sustainable “purpose” is more about lip service in external facing communications, companies put themselves in a hot seat that does more harm than good. Take North Face, which recently came under fire from oil companies and environmentalists alike because its production model doesn’t match up to its proclamations about a more sustainable world.

Then there’s BrewDog, which in recent years has highlighted its commitment to bettering the world through sustainable practices and punk ideology. The craft beer company faced criticism in June for a pervasive culture of bullying. An open letter by former and current employees spells out that rebelliousness and edginess don’t equate to progressive values, and suggests that the company’s recent pivot toward “sustainability” may have more to do with outward image than genuine purpose.

Functional purpose

Examples like BrewDog and North Face show that businesses with superficial brand purpose are more likely to focus on external expressions of their purpose, yet fail to act on it at the most basic level.

But the truth is, purpose doesn’t need to be the primary message of every communication – if it is, you have to wonder why a company is spending so much time talking about it instead of vetting its actions against its sense of purpose.

One unlikely hero on this front is Crocs.

Crocs has always done what it says on the tin: they’re all purpose and very little glamour – functional (some might say ugly), comfortable, sustainably made shoes. We knew Crocs to be the go-to shoe for people who didn’t have to look nice, but who had to be on their feet all day—nurses, chefs, or suburbanites padding around the backyard.

Then, a few years back, Crocs suddenly became a surprise hit with the fashion crowd: in 2016, Christopher Kane debuted a Crocs collaboration during his London Fashion Week SS17 show, and the brand went on to forge partnerships with the likes of Balenciaga, streetwear label Alife and rapper Post Malone.

But Crocs didn’t need to change its identity to be cool – in fact, it’s Crocs’ strong, unique sense of self that’s made it such a surprise success in the streetwear space. It’s that age old adage – staying true to yourself really is the coolest thing you can do.

Having a clear purpose gave Crocs the north star it needs to stay true to itself, ensuring Crocs can stand up to scrutiny. Whether worn by a nurse, a chef, or a rapper, Crocs – as a product and as a brand – always does exactly what it promises.

The end of brand purpose

So, what’s the lesson that every brand should take to heart from the likes of Crocs and The Body Shop?

It’s as simple as this: purpose is only truly effective when it’s fully functioning as a foundation for a business at every level.

Purpose is never fully formed if it’s merely a tool for joining in on popular – even important – conversations. I’d go so far as to say that without the core foundation of rigorous and deeply embedded business purpose, “brand purpose” doesn’t really even exist.

Successful companies – no matter what they champion – approach purpose as a promise they make to themselves first, so they can follow through on that promise to their customers, and to wider society in the long run.

Rik Haslam is executive creative partner at global brand consultancy Brandpie, and has created award-working work for brands across multiple sectors including British Airways, HP, IBM, Nissan, Pfizer, and Virgin Media.