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Clearing up ‘brand purpose’

If you’ve never heard of the Cannes Lions festival, I don’t blame you. But, it’s this one week a year in the south of France where the great and the good of advertising and marketing industries get together to pat each other on the back, schmooze, and mull over the big talking points of the business.

This year, almost everyone has been talking about two phrases: ‘brand purpose‘ and ‘woke-washing‘: the manufacturing of a brand ‘purpose’ where it doesn’t really exist, in order to tap into morally-fashionable trends. The whole subject has sparked debate on both sides of the argument.

There are those who seem to believe strongly that creating a brand around a ‘purpose’ is the only thing that matters right now. Consumers care more than ever about what their brands stand for and are willing to go further than ever to avoid giving their cash to a brand they socially or politically disagree with. They have a point.

Then there are those who dismiss it all. It’s a vanity act and a futile pursuit of moral one-upmanship. Not only is it often meaningless (see woke-washing), but it’s not very differentiating if everyone’s doing it, is it? They too have a point.

Here’s my take:

Your bullshit won’t cut it!

If you’ve read anything of mine over the last few weeks you know I’m a believer in standing for something more meaningful than margins and turnover. But, let’s get one thing clear – you’ve got to mean it. Like really believe in it.

Everything you do has to be authentic, not just because consumers are more ‘woke’ than ever and can smell BS a mile away, but because how else are you going to make it work if you don’t truly believe what you’re saying?

If you’re struggling to think of a *thruthful* but meaningful reason that you exist, start by asking yourself “what do we do?” – that be should be easy. Then, ask yourself ‘why?’ as many times as necessary until you feel it in your belly. Verne Harnish recommends going until you reach “to save the world” and then backing up a step or two.

Purpose ≠ Politics

This is really the thing I want to say.

Don’t be drawn into thinking that by having a ‘purpose’ you have to be all holier than thou, or overtly political in your stance on things. For a lot of small businesses, it simply isn’t feasible to risk antagonising your customer base by being overly-vocal on issues that aren’t relevant to your products or services. It’s also not always financially realistic to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ on major cultural issues. But your purpose doesn’t *need* to be that.

Just be authentic

Your purpose can be as simple as being the leading example of exceptional customer service, or to pioneer a new way of working in your industry. It’s could be that you love something so much that your sole aim is to get others enthused about it too. As long as it’s authentic and you truly believe in it, then you’re on to a winner.

No matter what it is, you can find your ‘minimum viable audience’ – those who buy into that same vision – and go on to succeed.

Yes, social injustice, or tackling climate change and inequality are all honourable causes, but let’s not get blinkered about what ‘brand purpose’ actually means.


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