How to avoid becoming irrelevant when pursuing purpose

How to avoid becoming irrelevant when pursuing purpose

Brands need to go back to their core utility to find their higher purpose or risk becoming irrelevant.


Unilever published back in 2019 that its brands with purpose grew 69% faster than the rest of its businesses, and were ensuring that every one of its brands had a purpose.

Cue the rest of the industry clambering to design purpose-led campaigns.

But definitions of ‘purpose’ vary. Do we mean ‘more than profits’? Or simply brand activism?

If we look at the dictionary definition of purpose it’s:

  • the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.
  • a person’s sense of resolve or determination. ( N.B. person – by saying Hellman’s purpose is to save the planet, well, we’ve anthropomorphised these brands!)

If the starting definition is ‘the reason for which something is done of created’, I challenge us to stop thinking about Purpose as only being of the highest order. In many respects, its synonym is ‘utility’.

The unifying motivation behind having a purpose, or utility, is to be single-minded and consistent about the service you provide and the lasting good you can deliver, and can help consumers with.

So in that sense:

  • World hunger makes sense for food brands (Unilever)
  • Tommy’s and Unicef makes sense for Pampers
  • Confidence for Always is interesting as it leads from the core truth that during menstruation womens’ and girls’ confidence plummets
  • But Mental Health and Alcohol? Tenuous but okay, you can see somewhat of a stretch…

When there’s misalignment, that’s when all the vitriol comes out. Think Pepsi and Black Lives Matter. Or Punk IPA and gender pay gap, with their pink IPA can.

I argue that brands need to go back to focussing on their core utility, and what utility they can provide consumers, rather than getting distracted with lofty purposes and deviating from their core function. (Some say the problem you solve for, but not everything is a ’problem’, i.e. chocolate cravings.)

As Terry Smith of Fundsmith so eloquently says, “The Hellman’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

Now of course, utility goes beyond just a service. It’s satisfying a need, and that includes entertainment, or providing laughter. But re-centering on your core utility as a brand or product can help to cement your role in consumers lives, and future proof for when you want to expand into a higher order purpose.

Because in the back of our heads, when we see these noble, purpose led, gestures and acts, we think: how nice. And also: but why?

Therefore congruence is key, and often these marketing driven purposes are off kilter with the core utility of the brand.

The findings from ARF and Kantar’s Cracking a Brand Purpose report reiterate this: “The brand should create an authentic foundation for the campaign rooted in the brand’s history and core, and the campaign should be an obvious move for the brand to take.”

And consumers can see through it: 53% of consumers think brands “trust-wash”, meaning they aren’t as committed to society as they claim (Source: Edelman).

Consumer products and services provide a service in our lives: to clean, to feed, to hold our money safe, to nourish, to power up, to connect. If you look at the most trusted brands (like Mintel’s trust report), the most used brands are the most trusted, and thus the most beloved.

Doesn’t mean that brands can’t be thoughtful. Philanthropic endeavours and heart-warming campaigns do build brand affinity. But these very much dramatize the core utility these brands provide.

A few great examples:

  • Airbnb: Housing for Afghani refugees. It is still about housing at its core, but applying it to a philanthropic need.
  • Tide: Washing machine stations after Hurricane Katrina.
  • Colgate: Driving for change – dental care for the homeless.

Side note:  For two decades, Pret a Manger has quietly taken unsold sandwiches off its shelves and, rather than discounting or dumping them, distributed them to shelters and food banks. Pret doesn’t talk much about this at all. It continues to position on fresh, handmade food instead.

What’s more compelling is that being purpose led doesn’t necessarily make business sense.

In December 2021, Peter Field (Of Long and Short of it Fame) analysed IPA effectiveness campaigns and showed that on average non-purpose led campaigns delivered greater business effects than purpose led campaigns.

Now of course great campaigns do deliver, and the phenomenal purpose led campaigns outperformed all – but they are in the minority.

I leave you with an excellent example of brand utility that also champions a cause so deeply rooted in the brand’s core service.

France’s Carrefour’s utility is arguably to feed the nation. It set out to use its leadership position as one of the world’s biggest retailers to change the law which considered many healthier varieties of seeds illegal.

So it created ‘Black Supermarkets’ in its stores nationally in France, which sold ‘illegal’ cereals, fruit and vegetables. A digital and social media driven petition generated over 80,000 signatures, eventually resulting in a new EU law on organic agriculture which relegalised the seeds in question.

In addition, the campaign created a 15% spike in footfall and increased produce sales by 10%. Carrefour also transformed its image with an 8 percentage point increase in brand love and becoming the preferred French retailer.

So in conclusion: yes brands should have a purpose, but I argue that purpose is the brand’s utility – re-centering  on that core utility (soap cleans, bread feeds, banks protect money) will make for stronger brand foundations from which higher order purposes can be developed. But never forgot your core function and service in consumers lives. If you forget that, you are making your brand irrelevant.

Monica Majumdar is head of strategy at Wavemaker UK

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