The Importance of
Brand Purpose

Tech giant Google aligned itself with the LGBTQ+ pride movement with this bold display.


Some may say that us brand marketers and researchers are even more susceptible to the buzzword virus than others, as slogans are our stock in trade. This may be so when it comes to the phrase Brand Purpose.

Brands are adopting causes left and right. Reasonably so, as our research shows that 81% of consumers believe that a company should have a purpose beyond making a profit. This perceived change in criteria for how people buy has driven brands to explore a social purpose beyond the product, hoping it will contribute to the bottom line.

However, when a brand decides to choose a social cause and where they stand, they have to tread carefully. Brands need to align the values their customers hold with the brand and its products, entering the space in an authentic way. This approach requires clearly defining the core customer values your brand satisfies by what it delivers already through its products or services. That solid foundation allows the brand to make better choices of causes that align with their values and avoid any taint of ‘greenwashing’ that many brands are accused of in this space that can even negatively impact profitability.

When the message is always the same, it’s hard not to be generic.
For example, when we asked what brands come to mind when thinking of those that have a purpose beyond making money, brands that are not known for owning specific social causes—think Apple, Amazon and Google—secured the largest percentage of mentions. Consumers translate ‘purpose’ into something closer to brands having a reason for being that they value. Consumers don’t always think of purpose in an altruistic sense, strategically connected to causes; They think of it, instead, more tactically.

The purpose for these brands is very different than brands that were created around a social cause, with a philanthropic arm at their core.

A continuum might look something like this:

This insight from consumer research should encourage us to start making very clear definitions of the terms that are currently being used in the brand marketing world. We can let their fundamental thinking about purpose and how it links to their values make us better brands and marketers.

If customers think about a brand having a purpose as basically having a reason to exist, then the focus must continue to be where it has always been—on satisfying the values that people hold for their lives. That does not mean brands that are not cause-driven cannot or should not support causes; that has become a requirement. It does mean, however, that those causes should be thought about through the lens of customer values that the brand satisfies.

That pivotal difference is between marketing strategy and brand positioning.

"81% of consumers believe that a company
should have a purpose beyond making a profit."

McDonald’s choosing what causes to support is fundamentally about marketing strategy. The articulation of the values it delivers on, through any causes it supports, should always be about things that fit the brand’s value equation. However, for Tom’s, having a cause is the brand, and is baked into its core brand positioning. Though both get covered off in marketing, they do it in very different ways. Tom’s does not have to concern itself with a poor brand-values fit when it speaks of its social role; McDonald’s most certainly does.

Marketing strategy designed around a social position—such as a Nike has done—is a perfect example of a cause linked to the values the brand has focused on since day one. Nike knew their customers felt empowered by athletic gear that enabled access to excellence and power. It was a natural evolution to connect that empowerment of personal performance to the empowerment of all, tapping into values like inclusivity and free-speech in their branded communications.

When a distinction is made between Cause Marketing and Cause-Driven Brands, we will be able to have more useful and strategic conversations that will enable effective choices when it comes to brand decisions of what to support and how.

Most brands do not fall into the end of the spectrum where cause-driven brands live. Our next blog will focus on the tactics of how to approach brand purpose through the lens of values.


In short...

  • Defining brand purpose, whether it is cause-driven or has a purpose, is key to determining how to market a product.
  • Brands need to understand how to align their cause with their products so they can enter the space in a genuine and authentic way.
  • Consumers don’t always think of purpose in an altruistic sense, or connected to causes.