Brand purpose has become essential - are you doing it correctly?

Memo: How to Communicate like a Thought Leader | Number One

As Jack Neff writes in AdAge: "Clearly you can't know a brand's purpose just by its name or products or ads."

Brand purpose, to be successful and impactful, needs to be more than a name, a logo, the functionality of your app.

A successful and impactful brand purpose is an ethos that exists in the hearts and minds of your stakeholders.

A successful and impactful brand purpose becomes transformational and not transactional.

Many professional communicators frequently conflate brand purpose with cause marketing, often linking brands with causes that don't clearly fit, make sense, or generally miss the mark.

"It's not cause marketing," Jim Stengel, former chief marketer at Procter & Gamble says of brand purpose. "It's the core principle of your company. If it's not multifunctional, multidisciplinary, embraced by the CEO, something people talk about, measure, and put in performance reviews, it's not going to work. If it starts in marketing, stays in marketing, becomes a slogan, a tagline, a nice campaign, it's going to die."

Brand purpose to succeed needs to be embraced by all of your stakeholders and must have an evident ability to break through the noise.

Making purpose work

Nike's purpose is perfectly summed up with its "Just Do It" tagline. 

This is one of the most persuasive examples of making purpose work as a foundation of a brand. Nike's brand purpose is clear, and it envelopes all of its stakeholders with the grand mission of bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

Another purposeful company is Dick's Sporting Goods, which announced it would stop selling guns and ammunition at all of its 125 stores. 

"You know everybody talks about thoughts and prayers going out to them. That's great. That doesn't really do anything," CEO Edward Stack said. "We felt we needed to take a stand and do this."

"I basically said, 'I don't care what the financial implication is,'" he recalled at an appearance at the WSJ CEO Council.

When many are demanding action on access to guns in American and few actually doing anything, Stack made action the purpose of the company he is leading. Action to be a good corporate citizen and action to do what is right regardless of the financial impact.

Amplifying purpose

For many brands, purpose is using what has worked for years and amplifying that message.

When Walmart launched its "Save Money. Live Better." tagline in 2008 that came from an archived speech founder Sam Walton gave in 1992.

"At the time [of the new tagline], there was a fairly big backlash against Walmart being this giant company," Stephen Quinn, former Walmart US chief marketing officer said. "The company was looking for a higher purpose beyond low prices, which was quite transactional." The tagline helped people inside and outside Walmart see the purpose of the company's mission to force down retail prices.

The tagline launched a communication effort which clearly explained how much money a Walmart customer would save and also became an internal organizing principle for the company's employees.

Why purpose matters

The key to purpose is recalling its purpose. 

"Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of 'make them cry, make them buy,'" Unilever CEO Alan Jope said at Cannes earlier this year. "It's about action in the world." 

Many professional communicators frequently conflate brand purpose with cause marketing, often linking brands with causes that don't clearly fit, make sense, or generally miss the mark.

Purpose, when matched with action and amplification, can help your company engage all stakeholders with inspiration and innovation as well as serving as an internal organizing principle.

Brand purpose is what your own, what you are shaping, what you are promoting, and what is driving you to compete for customers.

Brand purpose is more profound and more vibrant than cause marketing.

Brand purpose should be a multi-decade commitment and not based on a short-term cause marketing fling.


Marc A. Ross is an advisor and connector working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics. Ross specializes in helping entrepreneurs and thought leaders make better connections and better communications. He is the founder of Caracal Global and Brigadoon.

Marc Ross

Based in Washington, DC, I specialize in thought leader communications and global public policy for public affairs professionals working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics.

Clients hire me to ghostwrite, engage influencer networks, manage media relations, produce events, audit their communications infrastructure, consult on hiring, provide issue briefs and news generating talking points, as well as manage end to end communications projects where I assume a role of project leader and general contractor.

I work independently but provided access to a substantial global network of collaborators with expertise in websites, graphic design, audio, video, polling, data analytics, and research.

Using the latest tactics of an American political campaign with expertise shaped by being a practitioner of global business communications, I help clients tell their story and build trusted relationships with all necessary stakeholders.

Successful communications are all about STOCK = strategy, tactics, organization, consistency, and know-how.