Honestly, I’ve tried really hard to get my head round the idea of a brand 'purpose'.
It hasn’t been easy because it’s like a moving target. Just when you think you understand what one person means by a ‘purpose’, someone else comes up with a different meaning. It’s like ‘insight’ all over again.
The whole thing seemed to start off in a couple of places. First, the idea of an organisation having a purpose. Jim Stengel in his book ‘Grow’ defined purpose as “a business’s essential reason for being, the higher-order benefit it brings to the world”. So a business must have a reason to exist apart from making a profit. That’s seems pretty solid.
But it does say a ‘higher-order’ benefit, not just a benefit. People in marketing are well used to talking about higher-order benefits. Generally what it means is an emotional benefit. Or one to do with social image. How you’ll feel or how you’ll look.
It’s the basic idea of laddering. That works OK as long as you put your ladder up against the right wall. But everyone who’s grappled with benefit ladders knows the danger of climbing too high. When you get to the rung labeled “how you’re going to change people’s lives”, it’s generally time to come back down a bit, before your wings melt.
Then second to come along was the idea of a brand having a purpose. This could be the same thing as a business purpose, of course, but often not.
Here the meaning that took a firm hold was the idea of a brand having a social purpose. Not just higher but above and beyond.
I blame Dove for this. OK, ‘Dove helps women to escape the oppression of the beauty industry by finding their own beauty’ contains an insight of genius. But what it did was convince a whole army of brands to search out a similarly aspirational path. Not just how can we change people’s lives, but how can we change the world? Heady stuff.
Really, ‘what is your purpose?’ isn’t a complicated question at all. Why does your business or brand exist? Really, go on, tell the truth, why? It isn’t complicated. It’s just hard to answer.
All of which made me start thinking about the other big recent idea about brands - storytelling. I’ve struggled a bit with that one too.
The elements of storytelling can work well on brand strategy. Stories have heroes and heroes are often archetypes. So thinking about what archetype best represents your brand can be really useful.
Stories also have antagonists, bad guys. Working out the real enemy you face can be invaluable. Is it a competitor out there in the big bad external world or is it a tension in the big bad internal world. I heard Piers Newson-Smith of Direct Line describe that brand’s enemy as hassle.
It goes on. Stories have a beginning. Screenwriters call it an inciting incident. That’s like a challenge statement. Stories are often quests, which are like missions.
Then, of course, stories have a narrative arc. They are told in beats, scenes and acts. They have crises, climaxes and resolutions. Somewhere in there is a pattern, a narrative, that can often feel familiar. So although you’ve never heard that particular story before, it’s a story you recognise.
A brand can also tell you a story through its communication. It can do that in a single execution, a complete story told in a matter of seconds, with a beginning, middle and end, that’s engaging, compelling and satisfying. Really hard to do but it can be done. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Or it can tell you a story through a whole series of different - what are we calling them this week - experiences? Activations? Touchpoints?
This sounds even harder to me, unless the story is child-like in its simplicity. Mind you, all stories are meant to start with one of two premises - ‘a person goes on a journey’ or ‘a stranger comes to town”. So maybe deep down all stories are essentially simple. There is just ones that draw you in and ones that don’t.
But of course, apart from plot, the other key element of storytelling is character. You don’t have to identify with the central character in a story, you don’t even have to like them. But you do have to engage with them. As they face their conflicts, external and internal, you have to find yourself rooting for them. Otherwise, who cares!
In his book about screenwriting called ‘Story’, Robert McKee says that true character in storytelling is “revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”.
That’s why writers ramp up the pressure on characters at every level. They want to take them to the very limit, so we can find out by the end of the story who they really are.
So is that what the storytelling metaphor can actually do best for brands and businesses? Does it force you to think about why you do what you do? The reason that will one day be revealed to everyone when you come under pressure.
If that’s the case, it is simple. The two big trends in marketing of recent years have the same thought at their core. Purpose is motive.
Always the bloody same with brands, isn’t it? No such thing as a new idea.