These days, branding is all about purpose. Which would be great if it wasn’t for the fact that brands get it all wrong. Purpose is quickly becoming one of the most abused words in marketing as all the usual suspects jump on the bandwagon and claim they exist only to fight for diversity and equality, make the human race happier and/or saving the planet.

Unfortunately for brands, people see through this desperate virtue signalling.

So, exactly how does purpose work?

Purpose is the antidote to the traditional, rational approach. Rather than assuming humans are rational beings who notice, comprehend, remember, care about, trust and act on product messages, it assumes a different marketing worldview entirely.

A strong purpose connects with people emotionally through shared values; it solves real problems for people, and allows your brand to take on a meaningful role both in people’s lives and in culture.

Those that connect will like you, trust you and relate to you. They will perceive your product favourably, forgive its weaknesses, find reasons to buy it, and be willing to pay more.

If done right, that is. For purpose to be meaningful, it must fulfil three criteria: differentiation, relevance and authenticity.

There are two problems with the current approach to purpose

Firstly, it is thought of mainly as being of a social, ethical or environmental nature. With only vague celebrations of equality and completely disingenuous promises of happiness , purpose as a strategic approach is devalued and commoditised – at best merely a sound business practice, like paying taxes.

Secondly, purpose is too often reduced to a box-ticking exercise forever trapped inside powerpoint decks. Brainstormed in workshops and arrived at by committee, purpose is reduced to a set of generic visions, missions and values that describe…well, pretty much any brand out there.  

In other words,we fail to take advantage of the full potential of brand-purpose as a strategic approach. As practiced today it is rarely differentiating, relevant or authentic, and almost never all three.

But you’re in luck, cause here’s a five-step guide to get you started:

1. Purpose starts with ideology.

Purpose is all about values, and a purpose is but a subset of a broader ideology. Before you can find your purpose, you must figure out what you believe in, your worldview. In addition to informing and inspiring your purpose, a well-defined ideology provides a guide for all kinds of business decisions, ensuring coherency across the organisation.

A strong brand doesn’t reposition every couple of years, it evolves. An ideology gives you the flexibility required to remain coherent over time. By zooming in and out on specific topics you’ll remain on brand while the world changes around you.

Nike inspires people to overcome adversity. In doing so they have explored a wide range of topics, including class and racism, feminism, the virtues of failure, power of dreams and obesity. They’re all reflective of the same ideology, but as culture evolves, so does Nike.

So to sum it up, start broad, with ideology, then zoom in on a purpose. Finally zoom in further on tactics and topics to explore. Repeat.

2. Context is king. 

What you focus on depends on your competitive and cultural context. Virgin, Diesel and IKEA can all be said to share a similar ideology, revolving around equality and opposition to power, be it financial, political or cultural. Yet their purposes and approaches, each specific to the context in which they were conceived, could hardly have been more different.

Position your brand, not according to product benefits, but in relation to the cultural conventions expressed by your category.

When analysing it, try to understand the implicit values conveyed by the category collectively and over time. It’s all about perception. Think of it as the body language of the category. Everything communicates, whether or not it’s intentional is besides he point.  

What do airlines communicate by only promoting first-class cabins? What do beer brands imply about what it means to be a man in Australia?  As a cattle-class beer drinker who’s not very blokey, I feel alienated and ignored by these two categories.

So disruption and differentiation is not about standing out for the sake of it. It’s about being relevant to those who don’t identify with the category.

It’s about solving new problems.

3. Your purpose must solve real problems for people.

In order to solve your brand’s problem you must first solve a problem for people. And while many brands attempt to solve the world’s problems, what they should focus on instead is solving the problems of individuals. 

People’s problems are rarely missing pieces of information about your products. Real problems are of a higher order. They relate to status, power, identity and belonging. How to navigate and thrive in a complex modern society. Standing out and fitting in. It is here that the true potential for brands to connect with people lies.

VB brought pride back to the working class. Nike helps people overcome diversity. Dove makes normal women feel beautiful.  

From unique problems come unique solutions. So make sure your problem is different from other brands.

4. Embrace the haters.

Ask, who will hate my brand? If the answer is nobody, you’re in trouble.

A person’s status, belonging, power and identity are determined in relation to other people and groups of people. If a brand is to solve problems related to these – if it is to acquire any symbolic value – it must dare to be divisive. Think of a rebellious teenager. Unless a fashion brand makes her parents disown her, what’s the point of wearing it?

Every problem has a cause, and only by identifying it can brands offer an effective solution. It may sound overly academic, but solving these higher order problems is essentially about upsetting existing power structures. By empowering one group, you’re disempowering another.

And while some won’t like it, you and your customers now have an enemy in common. Nothing is more powerful.

When Jack Daniels championed a forgotten, traditional kind of rugged masculinity in the 60s, they simultaneously emasculated the millions of office workers (targeted by all other bourbon brands) and repositioned them as insecure, conformist, corporate slaves. 

When VB brought pride to the working class, it implicitly disempowered the upper and middle classes, for whom VB isn’t exactly the drink of choice. 

The more polarising something is – think politicians and musicians – the stronger emotions it evokes in people. Positive and negative. For some people to love you, others must hate you.

Like great art, the best brands – albeit to a lesser degree – confront and challenge us, provoke us, make us think, feel and talk.

And it’d be pretty damn boring if we all agreed.

5. Be purpose-led

Unless your ideology and purpose guide every business decision you make, it’s all just another marketing gimmick. And you’ll be found out.

Your purpose comes first, it’s your reason for being. You just so happen to sell products that go towards fulfilling this purpose.

Every brand can find a genuine purpose. It doesn’t have to be world changing and you don’t have to be a global conglomerate.

But you have to be prepared to walk the walk. Instead of letting your business get in the way of the brand, let your purpose inspire changes within the organisations as well as your marketing efforts. A brand’s purpose is also you and your colleagues’ purpose.  

Your purpose is a promise that you will be held to every day, so whatever you do, don’t make a promise you can’t keep.

*When doing good, relevance goes out the window, as demonstrated by LG: