Top brands are shifting from what to why — and finding their authentic purpose

We at Marketing Clinic believe that the strongest brands of today are working with a true purpose — a meaning beyond fulfilling the immediate needs of their customers. In a way, a brand’s purpose combines the mission and the value proposition of the brand. It expresses where the brand aspires to go, what it aspires to achieve and its reason for being, while answering the customer’s key question: “what’s in it for me?”

But the purpose goes beyond stating a straightforward answer. An authentic purpose connects the brand with all of its stakeholders — especially consumers, investors and employees — by sharing a common value and goal, or a view of a desirable future.

Consider Tesla, the famous example, and their mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. It is not only intriguing to customers, but also to employees and investors. Customers can expect to participate in a noble effort to stem the tide of climate change. Employees actually spearhead this ambition. And investors anticipate a healthy return in an industry that is booming thanks to bold visionaries like Elon Musk.

Fortum, a Nordic energy company, which is now also in the recycling and circular economy business, calls its stakeholders to “join the change — for a cleaner world”. Like Tesla, Fortum admits they cannot bring about a cleaner world all alone, but have taken a distinct role in making a difference. Their purpose is a call for action and a bold stand. It is a combination of a corporate mission and vision, another example in which all stakeholders can be inspired to share a common value and goal.

When a statement of purpose is also the brand’s value proposition, brands can begin to explore how they fit into the world and values of the customer. Then, “what’s in it for me?” begs a wider, more meaningful answer. Living up to the answer demands much more from the brand, but at the same time offers the opportunity to create a much deeper connection with the customer.

For businesses, that wider context is also a way to find growth — new sources of revenue and profit. Yet, you cannot be too overarching when identifying your brand’s purpose. You cannot just “save the world” or “make life better” or offer any other similarly vague pledge. Otherwise, you’ll be mired in uncertainty — thanks to unclear objectives providing room for opportunism and short-sighted business decisions slowing your operations and long-term strategy. You still need focus: a specific angle for the future, customers’ lives and the business you’re in.

A focused purpose is also a strong tool for building an open, healthy culture within the organization and committing people behind a brand. It shows a clear target. As a guideline, it channels the energies and resources of people. And having a purpose that combines the traditional mission and the value proposition, simplifies communication —there’s less to learn and remember.

Uncovering the possible for purpose-driven brands

How do you identify the purpose you should embrace? How do you uncover what is possible?

It is all about understanding the human behind the customer. This includes knowing what potential futures exist, and what our brand’s role in them could be. It is about finding out that deeper meaning and wider context of creating value, doing more than just providing for the immediate needs of the customer.

It starts by combining different perspectives: internal view, customer view and future landscapes.
The board, top management and employees together provide the internal view of the brand’s DNA and locate its ability to differentiate. They have expectations for the brand’s direction and future.

Too many brands limit themselves to the internal view. However, customer views both validate and challenge internal views, while also contributing totally new insights about the needs, expectations, attitudes and values that should drive the purpose of the brand. These brands utilize both qualitative and quantitative data, gathering it as closely to the customer and especially the end-customer as possible.

Finally, the best brands also consider potential futures. They systematically build comprehensive pictures of possible futures, understand different ways the world can change and how values change, and consider what their role in each future can and should be — simply put, what is the future they want to be involved in creating? They bring robust futures studies approaches into their strategy processes and are bold enough to look to the future despite the modern world’s complexity and uncertainty.

Are you ready for the harder road?

Having a purpose-driven brand is about taking the harder road.

Self-actualization and purpose are today’s added values that end-customers are looking for. But the solutions that brands provide need to be true to the brands themselves and the people who create them. Otherwise, consumers will judge them as marketing gimmicks. Or even worse, fake — something whitewashed or greenwashed.

Despite the channel and information overloads, today’s connected stakeholders can quickly become very aware of brands, what they communicate and how they operate. Building positive awareness and loyalty — both with customers and employees — demands authenticity. Consistency. And proof-points made of steel. The best proof points demonstrate actions and results. They are not statements. They don’t make you ask “so what?” They are concrete and fact based. Concise and memorable. Genuinely useful. And they make you ask the question “Can you tell me more?”

Fortum is on a long journey for a cleaner world. This means that the businesses they acquire, including power plants, might still be powered by unsustainable fossil fuels like coal. But even here they have the technologies to help make coal-based energy cleaner, before these sources are phased out in favor of sustainable options.

Yliopiston Apteekki, the largest pharmacy chain in Finland, differentiates itself within a tightly regulated market by being a genuinely social actor. Since their founding in 1755, they’ve channeled all their profits to Helsinki University, thus contributing to Finnish education, science and research. In the past ten years, their contribution has reached a staggering 200 million euros — with such a powerful proof-point behind their message of social responsibility that consumers cannot help but choose the brand.

Finally, the products you offer are concrete results in themselves. In the best case scenario, they encapsulate the reason to believe in the brand’s purpose. In the case of Tesla, Powerwall home batteries, solar panels and their full range of electric cars are all disruptions of existing businesses, proving that Tesla is accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

What is your brand’s “why”?

Brands that are successful tomorrow determine their purpose today. Not all brands require an authentic connection to a major megatrend or noble cause like sustainability, but they should be linked to the lifestyles and values of their customers in a way that goes beyond the immediate need for a service, product or solution. From the outset, identifying the values of customers could seem easier for a B2C company, but even B2B organizations have values to which they aspire — and they are powered by people with convictions and beliefs.

It is time to make the question “what’s in it for me” bigger.