Brand purpose was once extolled as the “fifth P” in marketing, after product, price, place, and promotion. A recent bout of brand purpose faux pas by prominent companies are making marketers rethink the strategy.

The Purpose of Brand Purpose?

Brand purpose is defined in different ways. However, it boils down to this: brand purpose is what gives a for-profit company its soul.

Brand purpose makes a company an advocate for a cause, so that customers can view the business in light of something they may also support. A soap company with low prices is just that. But there’s a particular appeal for Soap Company that sells cheap soap and also advocates for children’s education.

Essentially, brand purpose gives companies moral character that customers can get behind. Younger customers, in particular, increasingly support brands that advocate for a cause. The cause could be anything as long as it’s humanitarian.

Companies usually showcase their brand purpose in content marketing material. Big businesses make showy ads solely to promote their brand purpose, rather than products directly. Smaller businesses may also incorporate brand purpose when creating blog posts or social media posts. Local companies like Shout Agency have extensive experience in mingling brand purpose with content marketing.

Such techniques drive consumer interest and also customer engagement. A customer may not leave a comment saying how great a company’s soap is, but may take time to praise a company’s effort to eradicate illiteracy.

Brand purpose has noble origins, but does it stand the well-connected scrutiny in modern times?

Brand Purpose Post-Gillette

Brand purpose is back in the news largely thanks to Gillette, the razor blade maker. Quite recently, Gillette posted a “We Believe” ad online, intended as a call against toxic masculinity. The criticism that followed was swift. Some claimed Gillette was branding all masculinity as toxic. Others, mainly women, were quick to point out that Gillett’s “lady razors” are still pink and cost more. Some other critics slammed the brand as cynically exploiting a major social issue to turn a quick profit.

Gillette is certainly not the only heavily criticised company in brand purpose marketing. Not so long ago, in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, Pepsi posted an ad featuring the social media star Kylie Jenner and a group of protesting millennial. It didn’t go well with the target audience either, largely due to its tone-deaf message.

These prominent failures have promoted marketing pros to ask themselves whether brand purpose even matters anymore. Should companies really mix up ideology with ads clearly intended to hawk a product?

The problem with both Gillette and Pepsi ads were that the intended target audience didn’t receive the messages as genuine. And that was for good reasons, too.

In the case of Gillette, the company for decades has celebrated phallic symbolism and he-men types in their ads, only to take a sharp turn when that type of masculinity is no longer “cool.” With Pepsi, featuring a reality-TV star as the face of youth political resistance against a right-wing government, a hefty topic, just came off as slapdash.

When customers only see a brand purpose message as superficial, inappropriate, or even unnecessary, should companies just ditch the last P and move on? The answer is slightly complicated, as you can read below.

Does Your Brand Really Need a Purpose?

If brand purpose is to work, it should come off as something truly genuine. Pepsi and Gillett offers cautionary tales, but it doesn’t necessary mean that brand purpose is dead. The best example of this is Tesla, the electric carmaker. Tesla has gathered a cult-like following largely thanks to its brand purpose, just as much as its product. Tesla doesn’t just sell an electric car; it sells a sustainable future transportation that won’t emit fossil fuel exhaust.

As Tesla shows, brand purpose still works. But your business should first determine how well the chosen purposes fits with the product. For an electric car company, a green message is a natural fit. On the other hand, for a soda company, political resistance is not.

Also, it helps if the company has not been engaged in any activity that can directly contradict the message in the brand purpose. Gillette’s costly for-women razors, for example, directly contradict the message of gender equality in the advertisement video.

In order for brand purpose to actually work, choose a topic that your company genuinely cares about. Don’t promote a cause just because it appears “hip” right now. Choose a cause the brand can afford to advocate for years without appearing as hypocrites. Only then does brand purpose work. 

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