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‘Purpose’ is a word that has often had me rolling my eyes. While there are some genuinely brilliant purpose-led campaigns out there (Like Ikea’s #buybackfriday, Womb Stories from Bodyform and Tony Chocolonely’s campaign against child slavery), it feels to me that ‘purpose’ can become a bandwagon that brands and their agencies jump on to win awards.

It’s an argument that Steve Harrison has explored in his book, ‘Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell’. He puts forward the theory that the marketing industry has grown increasingly out-of-touch with its own objectives, and the general public that it seeks to persuade. He quotes Andy Nairn, who also shares this view, saying “I draw my conclusion from our collective output: ludicrous purpose-driven campaigns…point to an industry that is increasingly talking to itself”.

I’ll be honest, I was with them all the way.

But then, I heard Nils Leonard speak at Most Contagious (yes, many jokes were made about the difficulty of having such a name during a global pandemic) and I realised that is more nuanced. Nils describes purpose as being, quite simply “the reason your business exists”.

It was a lightbulb moment for me, as it struck me that of course, there’s a world of difference between social purpose and brand purpose – and it’s a really important distinction to make.

Brand purpose, or rather, having a crystal-clear view of what you do and why, is a hugely important thing for a brand to understand about itself. It can inform every bit of marketing you do, and to quote Nils again, it means “you know exactly how to respond to events going on around you. You don’t have to stop and ask, ‘What should we do?’. You know what to do”.

The crucial point of distinction between brand purpose and social purpose is that saving the world, or changing it, might be what you do. But it doesn’t have to be. It just has to matter to your audience.

So, how can brand purpose help us to create more distinctive and impactful conversations between brands and customers?

Well, firstly, it means “you know what to do”. But what I also find really exciting is that 1-2-1 is where loftier purpose can be brought right down to earth. It’s where we can translate what a brand stands for into tangible action for customers.

It’s something we’ve explored for Sainsbury’s, supporting their ‘Helping Everyone Eat Better’ purpose with activity that challenges customers to eat more fruit and veg and rewards them for it via the Nectar app.

This approach we’re starting to see more and more in direct comms – harnessing tech to help customers improve their lives. Vitality Life Insurance runs its Healthy Living Rewards programme, where you link your account to your activity trackers and wellness apps to receive discounts from Vitality’s partners.

Another great example of a brand delivering beneficial purpose is GoHenry. GoHenry is essentially a bank account for kids. But their purpose is to educate children on money management, so they grow up with solid financial habits in place. Parents and kids log in to the same account via the app, but each has different functions. Parents can set tasks for the child to complete in return for pocket money. Kids can set up savings pots, name them with a goal they’re working towards, and nominate a percentage of their pocket money that will go in the pot each week. Plus, kids get a personalised debit card, which goes down a treat.

Boots also demonstrated just the sort of clarity of purpose and ‘knowing what to do’ when we went into lockdown last year. They sent a series of emails with useful advice on managing stress, sleeping better, and good mental health over those first couple of months. They were timely, useful, and empathetic. But most of all, were totally aligned to the brand purpose of feeling good.

I wonder if there will come a moment when the rush for social-purpose led work will slow (although no signs of that yet with specialist, purpose-only categories popping up at Cannes, D&AD and the DMAs). But I hope clear brand purpose, that can translate directly into action that benefits both customer and client, is here to stay.