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Does a brand need purpose?

May 23, 2019 | POINTS OF VIEW

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”

Pablo Picasso (maybe)
Does a brand need purpose?
Purpose can strengthen a brand but it can also become a distraction.

The research from Harvard and EY defines purpose as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organisation and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society”. 

For me, I prefer the simplicity of Sinek and Spence. It’s answering the WHY.

What is the brand’s ultimate reason for being?  Why does it exist beyond making money?  What led to the company being founded, why should people care about your brand over any others, why is it as relevant today as yesterday and will continue to be so tomorrow? 

The I way I explain it when running purpose sessions with clients is for them to think of brand purpose as the north star of the business. It will never be achieved but it’s always there, guiding the brand forward. Think of Disneyland’s purpose, “to create happiness for others.”  The brand will never achieve happiness for everyone, but its purpose informs everything that they do at every single point of the customer journey. 

Nike’s is equally powerful. “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete”.  But the real magic came from Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman who, in nine words, made the purpose relevant for an entire planet: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Is purpose the same as a mission?

Is purpose the same as a mission?

“There Are Two Great Days In A Person’s Life – The Day We Are Born And The Day We Discover Why” – William Barclay

Confusingly, Nike calls its purpose a mission statement. And I’ve worked with brands where the HQ calls a vision statement a mission statement and a market refers to them the other way around.

Here is what seems, I think, a sensible way of understanding the role of each – except, of course for those people who disagree:

Purpose – the why

See above. It should last for 100 years or more.

Vision – the what

Usually written by senior management in an effort to take the thinking beyond day-to-day activity.  A vision statement usually focuses on the next 5-10 years – sometimes longer or shorter depending on the company and its situation.

Mission – the how

Describes what a business wants to do now. Its aim is to provide focus for management and staff and often is centred on answering three key questions: 1. What it does .2. Who it does it for .3. How it does what it does. For many brands and people this is the easiest one to complete as it describes the here and now. The trouble is, if you start with the mission and try to work backwards, which is an obvious tactic, then undoubtedly, you’ll end up with the wrong purpose.

Does a brand need purpose?

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times.  And my answer is always the same. Yes.  The questions, which usually follow, are, as Kipling called them, his six honest serving men – what, why, when, how, where and who.  I’ve always found that people instinctively know that having a clear purpose at the heart of the business is the right thing to do. But, landing on it and then knowing what to do with it can often feel like such a daunting task that it moves off of the priority list, sometimes never to be seen again.

Having worked with many brands such as British Airways, Hilton, Diageo and Pernod Ricard Winemakers on either articulating their purpose or finding ways to connect new audiences to it, there were several key questions that always came up.  What follows is my attempt to share with you some of the many things I have found out about brands and their purpose. Some of it is fact based, some is interpretation and some is observation. But all of it has been useful at one time or another.

Does having a purpose make you more profitable?

Does having a purpose make you more profitable?

In a word, yes.  In its research titled The Business Case for Purpose, a team from Harvard Business Review Analytics and EY’s Beacon Institute found that “companies who clearly articulate their purpose enjoy higher growth rate and higher levels of success in transformation and innovation initiatives”.   They found that 58% of companies with a clearly articulated and understood purpose experienced growth of +10% versus 42% of companies that did not prioritise purpose.

Perhaps even more strikingly, 42% of non-purpose led companies showed a drop in revenue over the same time period versus 85% of purpose-led companies that showed positive growth.

Tellingly, in their survey of 474 executives, they found that although there is “near-unanimity in the business community about the value of purpose in driving performance, less than half of the executives surveyed said their company had actually articulated a strong sense of purpose and used it as a way to make decisions and strengthen motivation”.

In the FT, Simon Caulkin recalls the findings of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras who, in their 1994 book Built to Last, found that companies guided by a purpose beyond making money, returned six times more to shareholders than explicitly profit-driven rivals. This is also in line with Unilever’s Sustainable Living brands which, in 2016, were growing more than 50% faster than the rest of the business and accounted for 60% of the total growth. 



  • Brands need a purpose.
  • Purpose is the ‘why’, Vision is the ‘what’ and mission is the ‘how’.
  • Having a clear purpose means that everyone from your customers, to your employees know and understand what you stand for, and why you exist. Without this, your brand runs the risk of pushing out mismatched campaigns and propositions, which don’t solidify your identity.
  • Brands that have strong established purposes tend to make more money.
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