In our new world order consumers are empowered and demand transparency. The character of an organisation is important, and authentic action is necessary to connect with consumers on a human level, restore trust and engender loyalty. Anything less is exposed at the rate of knots, as your folly is tweeted and blogged about to all who will listen.
But being authentic in voice and action requires a clear definition of who you are, what you believe in and what you're trying to impact. Without this, how do you define success? And if you can't define success, how do you know which steps to take, audiences to engage and ideas to push?
Marketing thinking has evolved from pure brand positioning to acting from a point of purpose. Successful brands are those that recognise that they are players in the customers' world rather than the other way around. Brands are characters that customers choose to interact with or not. What a brand does is more important than what it says. It is experienced as a collection of behaviours and gestures. And like people, successful brands make a series of gestures informed by a greater sense of who they are and what they stand for.
This is, in effect, 'inside out' branding - starting at the core of the organisation, beneath the layers of targeted messaging and selling jargon, to discover the relevant, credible, authentic higher intent that your organisation believes in - the difference you seek to make in the world. If you let this intent guide your actions, and if these actions include meaningful contributions to the greater social good in whatever form, the result is a true, distinguishing brand purpose.
Global giants like Apple, IBM and Proctor and Gamble make purpose seem easy, remaining focused and single-minded about what drives them and how they deliver value across expansive organisations. Apple believes 'people with passion can change the world for the better', IBM is fighting for 'a smarter planet', P&G provide products that 'improve the lives of the world's consumers'. But if the transition to brand purpose seems like a giant leap for you, here are a few guiding principles practiced by organisations that are getting it right.
Increasingly, organisations are seen as corporate citizens in society with the responsibility to contribute to how that society functions and thrives. Social responsibility today is not charity, or 'do-gooding' or a box to check on your sustainability report. However positive the results of this type of contribution, they are not, ultimately, the future of purpose. Social responsibility is about recognising your role in the ecosystem of society, and understanding the impact your organisation can make. It can no longer be a bolt-on tactic to a broader strategy, an afterthought or an independent function separate from the core undertakings of an organisation. Rather, it should be central to the alignment of corporate social actions and business objectives. Enlightened organisations view social responsibility not as a stick that's wielded over their heads, but rather as an opportunity to tell their brand story in a fresh, socially relevant way, helping to redefine their organisation in ways that both distinguish and motivate.
Woolworths is an inspiring local example of a business that understands its reach and impact. Their Good Business Journey aims to 'make a real difference in key areas affecting South Africa and the world' (energy, water, waste, sustainable farming, sustainable fishing, transformation, social development). Their communication around the importance of this purpose and how they are progressing against these goals is subtly woven into every aspect of the brand experience (in store displays, pack descriptors, mass communication), allowing the dialogue and perceptual space around Woolworths to be subtly linked to their commitment to sustainability, and thereby elevating the perception of the value the brand brings.
Your brand purpose should be rooted in what you do best from a business perspective, as well as be meaningful to target audiences and be differentiated from the competition. Ask yourself: Where does your company's passion lie? What are your organisation's greatest strengths, and what do you have to offer? What need do you see in the world/society/your local context that your organisation is ideally placed to address? Remember that it's not about marketing trickery or a quick fix. Getting purpose right requires a long critical look at your organisation's reason for being and the value you hope to bring to your customers, society and the world. Making it real requires examining how your organisation and staff operate, and are geared to deliver that value.
Discovery's core competencies relate to the management of financial risk associated with health and life assurance, yet the evolution of their business and associated success has been driven by a higher definition of their core purpose; 'to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives'. They do this through being in touch with shifting trends impacting consumers' lives, innovating to produce products and services that cater to these, and executing these efficiently; still generating business through their core competencies, but doing so in a more socially relevant way.
A brand purpose should be a sustainable idea that lives beyond competitive trends and the latest marketing buzz. Rather it should be based on something that is real and true and timeless about your organisation. It should reflect the ideals that you live, and the way your organization chooses to conduct business, day in and day out. In order to impact social good, it should connect to real issues that you see in your community or society and should have enough stretch to allow the organisation to continue to be relevant as time passes.
Destiny magazine launched into the SA market in 2007 with the clever, albeit perhaps tactical intent of filling a gap in the women's magazine market where lifestyle and business content could be married. Destiny's success in its short 5 year history bears testimony to the fact that it's targeting and positioning were bang on the money. But Destiny's purpose appears to have taken centre stage as the magazine grew. Through its various platforms, Destiny now acts as atrusted mentor with the intent of providing inspiration, guidance and encouragement for women either in, or considering entering the business world. In a country where the participation of women in business has been chronically low, the success of this magazine can be linked to a purpose that talks directly to the psyche of the modern South African woman.
Marketing can make the promise but it is employees who keep it. The top of any marketer's list should be to ensure that all employees understand and personally embrace the brand purpose and all it implies. Where mission statements fail and the 'vision' is often too fuzzy, purpose has the potential to command attention and inspire action. If it's powerfully articulated, and brought to life in a way that employees understand, believe in and are motivated by, purpose can shape organisational culture and drive the business forward.
Vida E Café's promise is a simple one - of allowing their patrons to experience life through an authentic European coffee culture encounter. Aside from the quality of the product itself, the delivery of the promise rests in the experience; a vibe, an exuberant, fun expression of warmth and hospitality which is driven solely by the staff. Vida's approach to employee engagement (all trained on brand experience and exceptional customer service, bottom up succession planning resulting in 98% of managers coming through the ranks, and upliftment initiatives) allow staff to really buy into the philosophy of the organisation and be mutually committed to its success. The result is a unique Vida experience that has allowed the chain to flourish from 1 to over 50 stores in 11 years, including 3 in London.
In short, the road to discovering and living a compelling brand purpose involves honest reflection of the higher intent your organisation is prepared to commit to, and whether this is relevant enough for your consumers to care. It takes long term effort to align your business behind delivering against this purpose across all expressions of the brand experience. It's not an easy road, but those who do embark on this journey will reap the benefits - not only in building a strong brand, but in real bottom line results over time.