Pragmatic Purpose: There’s More Than One Way to Save the World

Pragmatic Purpose: There’s More Than One Way to Save the World

Purpose is a nearly ubiquitous word when it comes to brands, as a discussion rages in the industry around whether we can, as businesses, sell and do our part to help the world. As corporate giants like Unilever, declaring every brand in the portfolio must be purpose led, and Procter & Gamble, attempting to balance being a ‘force for growth’ and a ‘force for good’, tackle purpose – it’s easy for every brand to feel as if they have to instantly jump into the fray with the same level of enthusiasm.

However, before assuming everything has to be rethought to find a purpose – businesses need to dimensionalize and consider what purpose means to them. Purpose isn’t a new concept and it shouldn’t be at odds with how brands build, operate or succeed. Instead every brand has a purpose at its heart, otherwise it wouldn’t exist as a distinct brand. The current industry conversation isn’t about the existence of brand purpose, but the necessity and scale of the positive impact that purpose needs to create in the world.

“Brand is everything. It’s the core of a company’s being. A strong Brand Purpose serves as an effective North Star for the entirety of an organization from product development, DEI, employee engagement through to marketing, brand partnerships and market positioning. It doesn’t currently play the role it should in every brand but it is needed in modern marketing today to ensure businesses are successful for the long-term.”
– Andrew Almendras – VP Global Creative Marketing at IMAX

Challenger brands have an inherent advantage when we talk about purpose. As many challengers come from rethinking how a business operates or a product delivers value, they often avoid the legacy liabilities that other more established companies may have. This lack of potential baggage clears the way for many challenger brands to start at a purpose level of positive action. Challengers often have a purpose or point of different behind their product that lays the ground work for a centralized purpose behind the brand.

Consumer Concerns & Worries Are Shifting, As Well As Who Should Address Them

The issues and worries facing the world have evolved and with them, a shift in what actions are most needed from brands and businesses. As coronavirus subsides, worries about social & political inequality and the economy have taken its place in the global population’s most pressing concerns. IPSOS’ monthly What Worries the World’ tracker identifies Inflation (34%), Poverty & Social Inequality (31%), Unemployment (27%) and Crime / Violence (27%) as the top issues found most worrying globally, with Coronavirus down to 16% as of May 2022. As the worries and issues facing us expand, the need for solutions becomes more pressing.
However, individuals are looking for help beyond themselves and struggling to find who to trust. Our Rival Spark research found that 59% of consumers in the US / UK believe that it is important or very important that a brand has a strong positive or societal purpose. However, despite conversation around Gen Z’s prioritisation of purpose, 25-34’s were most demanding of a brand purpose, with 35-44s following closely behind.

Personal charity engagement also increased the importance of brand purpose, with 66% of those who donated in the last 6 months believing it is important that a brand has a positive purpose (+7% vs. the overall average). When consumers champion positive action in their own lives, they also expect it from brands.

Expectation of a brand purpose is putting the onus on businesses to solve the issues facing the world. Edelmann’s trust barometer study for 2022 found that businesses were the most trusted institution to ‘do what’s right’ globally, with 61% trusting vs. 59% for NGOs, 52% for governments and 50% for the media. Marginally greater trust for businesses than NGOs isn’t just an opportunity, but also a challenge – as with greater trust comes greater responsibility to create an impact. Increasingly brands, just like NGOs, will be judged not just by their aim to do the right thing, but by their impact in achieving it. Having a purpose isn’t enough for many sectors, it’s now about what you do with it – creating a need for pragmatism when planning purpose.

– Julie Tofts, Chief Commercial Officer, Goodwings

Not All Purpose is Equal

Elevating a brand’s purpose to a larger societal impact isn’t just about action; it’s also a balance between societal value, consumer relevance and authenticity. Not all causes are equally prominent, relevant or available for a brand to adopt, and therefore not all potential brand purposes are created equal.


Using the types of issues brands can address laid out by marketing consultants Philip Kotler & Christian Sakar in their work on brand purpose, and adding areas around health and security to take into account the current cultural landscape, our Rival spark research has identified where consumers most engage with across a spectrum of issues.Consumer engagement varies across issue types, with issues most pressing or directly impacting individuals (e.g. health, economy, environment and society) capturing the highest engagement. Alternatively, issues which are polarizing (e.g. Politics) or directly tied to business sit further down in many consumer’s minds.

Considering similar types of issues that consumers expect brands to engage with, the Rival Spark data show a higher expected engagement across the board, mirroring the expectation that businesses are one of consumers’ main sources of solutions to the challenges facing them. Across the US / UK, only political issues hold a minority of the population expecting brand engagement, indicating a much higher potential for division and alienation of customers relative to other types of causes which have less ideological fault lines.

While brands are expected to engage more highly than consumers on many issues, the consumer / brand engagement gap is more profound among types of issues more naturally seen to be the purview of operating a business. Legal and business issues such as workplace and tax, CEO pay or labor relations are expected to be highly engaged with by brands, while consumers are less engaged. The data seem to imply that these issues are still important for brands to consider, but are largely seen as their responsibility to own as a part of being a good corporate citizen. Alternatively, societal, security, economic and environmental issues are areas where personal engagement is higher, but brands are expected to lead from the front and contribute a greater amount to a shared purpose.

– Julie Tofts, Chief Commercial Officer, Goodwings

Everybody Wants to Save (Money & Then) the World:

While consumer attitudes towards different issues vary – the overall role of purpose in influencing purchase has shown to be much more consistent. Despite a majority of consumers stating its importance for a brand to have a positive purpose, its role is secondary to price and product performance. Deloitte has attempted to illustrate the impact of purpose, as 23% of consumers aware of a positive action by a brand strongly agreed that the perception of that brand had changed, while 19% strongly agreed it would impact purchase behavior.

Rival Spark data also indicate that price and product still rank higher than a strong purpose in importance for influencing purchase behavior – even amongst the most charitable or cause engaged. Brand purpose comes as a value multiplier vs. a value creator, unable to override the more base economic consideration factors that drive purchase, but helping to drive choice once price is held consistent between products in a set.

As we sit on the edge of wide reaching global recession & economic disruption, with consumer confidence dropping and financial worries on the rise, price sensitivity looks to increase, potentially further widening the gap between the choice the wallet and the heart make at the shopping aisle. However, with potential discounts and price battles expected to capture more frugal shoppers, purpose could play a very important secondary role if price based differentiation becomes harder for brands, especially challengers.

A Model for Positive Brand Action

Thinking about how to establish and leverage a brand purpose is challenging, especially in the context of wider purchase factors and varying issue engagement. The key is clearly identifying what level of maturity your brand and the sector has with regard to positive action, finding an authentic role which can be built upon.

We’ve identified three types of purpose as a wider ‘Rival Positive Brand Action Model’, evolving from Brand Responsibility, to Purpose and Activism. Just as consumers don’t approach every potential issue consistently, every brand has a different level of expectation and responsibility to meet, which purpose doesn’t completely encapsulate. Understanding where a sector currently exists and surpassing this as a brand is the clearest way to pragmatically establish a purpose.

Brand Responsibility stands as the minimum level of positive purpose for a brand. The CSR model of brand purpose, in which support or contributions separate from main business operations are used to ‘offset’ is a key element of this area to achieve good corporate citizenship. While many sectors which are trusted to act positively will hold this as table stake (e.g. FMCG, Technology, Education and Retail all hold high trust to act positively (Edelmann, 2022)), sectors which have negative perceptions or distrust (e.g. Social Media, Fashion, Utilities, Energy, Chemistry), may still benefit from achieving a more neutral consumer perception as ‘not being evil’ – though increasing expectations from consumers looks to increasingly erode this. The level of believability that a company will engage in CSR is high relative to wider purpose driven action, but it holds the lowest relative impact for a brand’s perception. Operational issues are increasingly the only areas a brand can focus on within responsibility, as legal or business issues such as CEO pay, labor relations or workplace issues are areas a responsible brand is expected to focus on.

– Loren Mattia, Head of Content & Community, Daylight

Brand Purpose stands as the existing focus for many sectors when it comes to positive purpose. A vision model of brand purpose, it entails having an intent to improve the world beyond your core operations which is communicated and aligned to consumers. While this is the most common behavior considered when we talk about brand purpose, it is increasingly being challenged by consumer expectation. As consumer trust in business is on par with NGOs, the need for action is increasingly present, especially on issues where brands are expected to lead (e.g. Societal, Environmental & Economic issues). Brands in high trust sectors have to consider how to identify and establish a purpose that can integrate to their core offering and operation authentically, before evolving with consumer expectations into activism. Believability in a brand’s purpose comes from tight integration between its chosen vision and the core operations of the company.

“The authentic purpose of a brand is always there – brands just need to look on the inside first before they look externally. From why a business started in the first place to the way a business is run through to how they treat their employees. This all ladders back to brand purpose. Often times, brands are seeking to be like others when they should really lean into what makes them unique.”
Andrew Almendras – VP Global Creative Marketing at IMAX

Brand Activism is the final evolution of brand action, shifting the purpose a brand has established towards societal leadership and impact in the world. If purpose is the ‘why’ a brand exists as a positive force, activism is the ‘what’ that means in the world. As brand leadership expectations rise around certain sectors or issues, activism is increasingly becoming an expected position, especially for those looking to lead or challenge the category. Taking a leadership role isn’t without its risk though, as the highest levels of scrutiny come to those attempting to recruit and lead a movement for positive impact. Just as in the charity sector, activists need to prove an authentic reason to lead and showcase their ability to deliver results, while putting their brand over the parapet.

3 Principles for Activating Purpose:

Regardless if you’re a challenger or market leading brand, there are several key elements that can guide how you consider and act positively as a brand – from defining where the sector and your brand sit, through to how to expand its impact.

1.) Aim to Outperform the Moral Average, Not the World

Saving the world is an exciting ambition, but hard to authentically and believably do for many brands. Setting grand ambitions for a purpose can set the bar too high for it to be achievable. Instead, pragmatic purpose can come from attempting to outperform the sector’s or competitive set’s ‘moral average’ – found by considering what the current group’s role is (e.g. Responsibility, Purpose or Activism). Meeting and exceeding the moral average allows a brand to understand where the ‘floor’ is for business impact.

2.) A Good Purpose Doesn’t Fix a Bad Product, But a Good Product Makes a Stronger Purpose

Purpose is important, but it isn’t the main driver of purchase for consumers. Instead, it’s one factor that helps to form wider value in concert with core factors such as price and product benefit. The best purpose in the world, solving valuable issues, won’t make up for a bad product or high price in the long term – as either consumer behavior or competitors will take advantage of this imbalance.

However, planning an authentic purpose that is reflected in your product can help your brand purpose become more important and prominent to consumers. An integrated product / purpose story helps to wrap product benefits and features in additional value, elevating their importance and value. Purpose integration multiplies value in and out of an organisation, as it provides a north star for product development and a goal for employees to push towards.

– Loren Mattia, Head of Content & Community, Daylight

3.) Incrementally Expand Your Impact
Big impact doesn’t always have to come from big action, instead the cumulative impact that comes from incrementally positive brand action can help businesses build towards the best way to activate a brand purpose. Establishing initial actions and developing further towards where impact or consumer engagement is being created can help break down the complexity of purpose into clear steps and tests.

– Jess Fleischer, Founder, Son of a Tailor

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Work Up to Flying.

With a world that seems like it’s increasingly more on fire everyday, a measured approach to trying to improve it may not seem like the appropriate response to many marketers. The humanity behind every business has an instinctive need to respond to crises and we want to feel we’ve done the right thing. However, separating out what emotionally feels good and what tangibly creates good can help a business pragmatically do good. No one is downplaying the urgency of many of the issues facing both brands and people today – but just as in many emergencies, measured action and clear eyed response creates safety.

Change and sustained impact come from a series of actions, not one off gestures or announcements – and this requires building a realistic plan for the long term. Brands that set out to become activists on day one risk creating a negative, not positive impact – feeding into cynicism and disbelief that business can’t be a force for good amongst a worried consumer base. If we as marketers can do anything, it is to help diminish the societal discussion around ‘woke washing’, ‘green washing’ and false purpose. In a world where every brand feels pressured to throw on a cape and be a superhero, it’s worth remembering that for every Superman, there also needs to be a large collective actively becoming less Lex Luthor to drive real, sustained positive change.

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