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Purpose IN positioning OUT

For the umpteenth time I was trying to make my mind up about brand purpose.

You know, that simple-but-hard-to-answer question: “Why do we exist?”

I’m still drawn back to the idea of a brand essence, the solid dependability of ‘what we stand for’.

Then I realised what the two have in common.

The word ‘we’.

It’s the same with vision and values. A brand team may be as consumer-centric as it’s humanly possible to be. They may also be smart enough to leave all first-person plural pronouns out of their statements.

It still ends up as us and them.

And I’m not talking about business purpose here. Anyone running an organisation needs to be clear on their reason for being. They need to set the course so others have the confidence to follow. At its best, it’s the spark that lights the fire.

But brand purpose?

The thing is it just won’t stand still. Either it’s running off to join the social purpose circus, saving the world whether the world wants saving or not. Or it’s all about communication, a campaign idea to be reverse-engineered into a reluctant business.

Easy to see why a business might be hesitant too. A purpose is like a principle and as Bill Bernbach said: “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.”

And a brand shouldn’t need to communicate its purpose externally, it should be apparent from its actions. Customers only really have one question in their mind when choosing a brand, either consciously or unconsciously, and that’s ‘what’s in it for me?”.

So purpose is IN.

And that leaves positioning OUT.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a brand positioning. In my book all brands need one.

But what I love most about positioning is how it happens in the minds of customers, a set of associations that form in their memory, sitting there waiting to be activated.

Brands have tangible assets, of course they do, like the name and logo. But a brand’s real value is intangible. That notion may mess with some people’s heads but it’s true.

So everything in a positioning should be about the consumer. This is what you get out of it, these are the needs you can meet, the goals you can achieve, the benefits you’ll experience.


Putting it another way, purpose is intra- and positioning is extra-.

They both have an element of inter-. Everyone involved in a brand should have a common sense of purpose. And a brand positioning only works if the associations built up are shared.

But really we should keep our purpose to ourselves and let the customer have the positioning.

Seems only fair. It’s their money.


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