Purpose is Brand’s New Buzzword

Written by on November 19, 2012 in Nonprofit, Social Business, Strategy - No comments


If you are a benefit corporation, a socially responsible business or a nonprofit, your purpose is much of what sets you apart. But as you are probably aware, you don’t have a monopoly on “having a purpose”. Big brands are growing more and more interested in using purpose as a differentiator, so much so that this concept is quickly becoming the fifth “P” of marketing.

In the near future, we’ll be discussing the implications of big brands finding “purpose” and what it means for social enterprises and nonprofits. In the meantime, the following guest post by one of our strategic advisory council members  frames the trends that are in motion.

By Steve McKee, founder of McKee Wallwork and Cleveland

We all know that words like “green”, “sustainable”, and “natural” have been used and abused to the point that they’ve lost much of their meaning. Well buckle your seatbelt, because “purpose” may be next.

WARC (formerly the World Advertising Research Center) cited an interview with Unilever’sPaul Polman in which the CEO said that every Unilever brand must now be driven by a “purpose”, such as Dove’s now famous “Campaign for Real Beauty” or Lipton aiming to acquire all of its tea from sustainable sources. “A successful product must provide utility,” Polman said, “but it must also exhibit a social consciousness, if you will…Every brand must have a social mission.”

Hard to argue with that as a general principle, even if Unilever is taking itself a bit too seriously. (“By drinking Lipton Tea,” Polman proudly pointed out, “a lone consumer can become part of a movement of millions of other people around the world that supports a socially responsible product. People want to be part of a movement like that.” Funny, I just thought I was thirsty.)

Unilever’s gargantuan global competitor, Procter & Gamble, is also using the “p” word. WARC reports that P&G “is combining consumer insights and its global reach to pursue ‘purpose-driven branding’ around the world.” But P&G is using “purpose” in a different sense than Unilever. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s head marketer, explained that “Purpose is much more than a cause or a corporate responsibility. We deliberately focused on making people define purpose as how brands improve everyday lives. A cause is just a piece of it as opposed to the whole thing.”

Pritchard cited varied examples, from Pampers’ purpose “to improve a baby’s healthy, happy development” (which includes a vaccination partnership with UNICEF), to Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” purpose, to Gillette’s lighthearted purpose in India of supporting “Women Against Lazy Stubble”.  I suppose shaving could be considered socially responsible, but probably not in the way Unilever would define it.

I’m not here to say which company’s approach to “purpose” is correct, although I do have some sensibilities about who will come out ahead. It’s possible that despite their semantic differences both companies may win, if for no other reason than they understand who’s driving the bus:

Polman: “If you understand what consumers want and have products that meet their needs, you can grow – regardless of macroeconomic conditions.”

Pritchard: “If you focus on the consumer, what your brand is doing to serve the consumer and if you have a big idea, you will win most of the time.”

What I can say is that by these two global giants invoking the same term, “purpose” will become a new buzzword that is bound to be picked up by other companies trying to stay in line with the times.


Steve serves on the advisory council for Good.Must.Grow. He is the founder of McKee Wallwork and Cleveland, an accomplished author and a regular Businessweek.com contributor. This post was originally published at http://mckeewallworkcleveland.com/blog. 


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