Woke to broke? The why, how and what of purpose-driven marketing

Are brands capable of influencing behaviour and doing genuine good? Nikki Moeschinger considers the roots of the purpose-driven marketing movement, including how exactly brand management relates to what you do and why you do it.

As devastating as the events of 2020 have been, one positive has been a sense of global unification. There’s nothing like a crisis to bring people together. Our societal and social responsibilities have never felt more important. But, for many brands, this is nothing new. Social Purpose, or Purpose with a capital P, has been front and centre of brand communications for a number of years.

For organisations to have a sense of social responsibility is undoubtedly positive and its impact can potentially be widely felt. But what does it actually have to do with marketing? Or as Leo Hadden, head of strategy at BrandOpus, recently put to Mumbrella360, “Does having a higher social purpose actively influence consumer behaviour at the point of purchase and can a brand be truly distinctive if everyone is claiming to make the world a better place?”

Why you do what you do

To answer this question, it’s important to go back to the roots of the Purpose-driven phenomenon, which can be attributed, at least in part, to Simon Sinek. His 2009 Golden Circle presentation was brilliantly simple, putting why at the centre of a brand’s ability to succeed by claiming “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

In reality, though, people do buy what you do, and their choices are framed by how you do it. But rather than how you do it being a brand’s unique selling proposition (USP), as Sinek proposed, we at BrandOpus contend that how you do things is the brand. In other words, that how is the lens through which your product or service is experienced and understood. For example, people don’t buy Apple products because ‘everything they do challenges the status quo’ (with over a billion iPhones in circulation there’s a case to say they are the status quo), they buy them because they’re drawn to beautifully designed and easy to use technology – and the logo on the back generates a way of feeling about their life and their place in life in general. It’s a feeling that even experts struggle to articulate or codify, such is the visceral power of brand.

So, what of why? Having a why is absolutely critical, there’s no doubt about that. It’s important because it informs both the how and the what, but the trap some businesses fall into is thinking of the why as a marketing strategy in and of itself. It could be argued though that where why is most powerful is in the galvanisation of internal culture and as a decision-making compass, embedded behind the scenes rather than leading from the front. And the why does not need to be socially-motivated. There are many, many successful brands who have a very powerful why that has nothing to do with impacting the world around them (Apple, for example). But it also doesn’t rule those brands out of doing good, should they wish to.

The art of brand management lies in knowing what you stand for (why you exist beyond selling a product or service) and how you bring that to life. If what your brand stands for aligns with a particular social cause, then great. You can be good and do good in an authentic and effective way. If, however, alignment with a particular social cause is out of step with the core meaning of your brand – and the associations held by your target market – the results can be catastrophic. Think back to the estimated billions of euros in non-cash losses that allegedly resulted from the now infamous 2018 #thebestmencanbe campaign for Gillette. There were undoubtedly many factors that played a role but being true to their brand could have helped offset some. Instead, they chose to break the pattern with a well-intended but altogether different narrative, and the rest is history.

How a brand is brought to life

The very essence of branding reminds us all that how a brand is brought to life must be distinctive in both how you look and what you say. For example, consider the near-identical campaigns brands like McDonald’s, AUDI, Volkswagen and Coca-Cola have run recently, playing with their distinctive assets to encourage social distancing. From a meaning perspective, this created a lot of similarities. From a meaning perspective they said nothing about themselves, so added very little to their how.

Brands can be thought of as heuristics; quick, though sometimes faulty, predictors of a probable future outcome. They are short-cuts our brains use to help deal with the phenomenal amounts of information we process each and every second. Unremarkable messages have no hope of breaking through the cognitive barriers our brains develop to keep ourselves sane amid the phenomenal volume of information they receive. And so, the more universally compelling a message or cause, the more likely many brands will want to align themselves with it, and the less likely it is to be effective from a branding perspective.

We use this understanding to create brands that are capable of changing behaviour. By drawing on some of the principals of cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and semiotics we can further understand how people recognise, decode and recall information, giving us a much better chance of structuring a brand’s how in a way that gets in the mind, and sticks there.

Here are three principles to help build understanding:

Framing

The first of these principles is framing. The Nobel prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, uses an incredibly simple yet profound exercise highlighting how context defines content. We can change the way something is understood by simply changing the context, the frame or what we would argue as the how, in which it is experienced. Branding works in exactly the same way. Brands frame products and as such, give meaning to material objects.

Eachness

The second is that of eachness. As explained by a cognitive bias called the ‘bizarreness effect’, the brain recognises and recalls things that are distinctive or quirky. Embedding eachness in a brand drives memorability and salience.

Relativity

Finally, the principle of relativity states that we understand things in relation to their relationship with other things, very little is understood in absolute terms. Like framing, relativity helps the brain to decode information, and as such is effective when it comes to impacting behaviour.

All three of these principles are compromised when a universal message is communicated, or when a brand succumbs to the visual norms of a category without embedding some disruption. But, if we use these principles to meaningfully distinguish one brand from the rest and if we define a brand’s why and bring it to life (how) in a distinctive and memorable way, we can avoid following the path of good and moral at the expense of your company’s most valuable asset – it’s brand.

Nikki Moeschinger is the managing director of BrandOpus. Some of the material was presented by BrandOpus’ head of strategy, Leo Hadden, at Mumbrella360 Reconnected 2020.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.