Brands are born out of desire to fill a need. An idea is created, a product is built, a name is lovingly brainstormed and selected, and companies are born. There is so much energy in these early stages; after all, for a brand to succeed, you need real belief. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing ensures you fight hard enough to survive in those crucial early days.
But years or decades into your brand’s journey, some of this zest can get lost. Admin and legislation pile up; routines and habits calcify; and what was once new and exciting becomes expected and usual.
It’s a dangerous thing. A brand that’s lost touch with their original purpose is at risk of falling behind commercially. Lack of purpose can be felt by consumers: a brand that’s no longer engaged with the thing they once stood for will always feel like a brand that’s lost their way.
Sometimes a brand needs to pause and reconnect with its original purpose in order to reset for a stronger future.
Let’s start by looking through some case studies of brands who have realigned towards a forgotten or redefined sense of purpose. Then, we’ll take you through the questions you need to ask yourself to find your own brand’s purpose, and reset.
Finding Purpose that Fits: American Express
In 2010, American Express set about to engage their brand in a purpose beyond the pursuit of profit. The bank thought of their consumers and identified a key reason for their existence: providing entrepreneurs across America with the means to start and run small businesses.
Thus Small Business Saturday was born. AmEx founded the shopping holiday to encourage shoppers to look beyond chains and department stores, and spend with small businesses. In return, AmEx customers who “shopped small” would get rewards.
By the initiative’s second year, it was taking off: 5000 small businesses participated and 103m Americans supported local shops.
The concept has been exported to other countries (this year in the UK, AmEx customers got £5 back on every £10 spent with a small business) and is now a strong constituent of the American Express brand.
What’s more, they linked this new purpose to the core of what their brand had stood for over the decades. In 1975, they launched their long running slogan about American Express travellers’ cheques: “Don’t Leave Home Without Them”. With the dawn of the credit card, this morphed into, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.” And with the launch of Small Business Saturday, it was adapted again to, “Don’t Live Life Without It.”
In their slogans, there is continuity that remains; in the launch of Small Business Saturday there is readjustment towards purpose.
From American Express we learn that finding a purpose that aligns with your audience is essential ahead of defining marketing strategies and developing creative. Once you’ve established your brand purpose, creating meaningful marketing ideas becomes easier.
Resetting Purpose: American Apparel
American Apparel has undergone one of the biggest gear-shifts in recent branding history. And it’s down to a reconsideration of purpose.
The company had descended into debauchery (documented here by Esquire). Their adverts featured underaged girls photographed through an extreme male gaze, always highly sexualised.
American Apparel had stopped thinking about why they existed, and who they existed for.
Was their brand for certain men, with a warped idea of what’s meant by sexy? Or was it for the women who bought and wore their clothes? Women who wanted to feel comfortable, and define sexy on their own terms. American Apparel’s marketing was catering to the former, and they’d forgotten all about the latter. The result of which was plummeting sales.
With a new, all-female executive team appointed, they re-invigorated their image with the purpose that had been forgotten. They put their customers front and centre and produced adverts and imagery that reflected them. Their ‘Back to Basics’ adverts were colourful and fun; they showcased different ages, ethnicities and sizes; and they ditched unrealistic photoshopping.
Ultimately, American Apparel remembered that their purpose was to provide clothes for real people who wanted quality, comfort and style at a reasonable cost. Once they’d remembered this, the solution was at hand.
Re-engaging with Purpose: Gillette
The new Gillette advert is one of the starkest examples of a brand examining their fundamental purpose.
If you’ve not yet seen the advert, it’s worth a watch.
The narrative is up to the minute: it takes a strong stance against toxic masculinity; it engages head on with the #MeToo movement; and it promotes a modern version of manhood, where there is strength in kindness.
What’s more, from a branding perspective the advert is a stroke of purpose-defining genius: it takes their famous and well-worn slogan and engages it in a whole new way.
“The best a man can get” no longer relates simply to their high quality razors, but to the qualities of manhood Gillette is endorsing.
The company looked at the social and political landscape, and reflected inwards to ensure that what they are promoting is in line with the direction the world is headed in. When they decided that their previous adverts with clean-shaven men chasing women were no longer in line with an aspirational purpose, they switched key.
Pankaj Bhalla, North American brand director for Gillette tells of how the company carried out focus groups with Americans. The message they heard over and over was men saying: “I know I'm not a bad guy. I’m not that person. I know that, but what I don't know is how can I be the best version of ourselves?”
“And literally we asked ourselves the same question as a brand. How can we be a better version of ourselves?” This question led them to their ad campaign alongside a pledge to donate $3 million to causes helping boys and men to be positive role models.
In a clever campaign, the brand redefined their purpose and gave themselves a goal to strive towards.
Questions to ask about your brand
Whether your brand has veered away from its original purpose, or never had one in the first place, 2019 is the perfect time to reconsider.
So where to begin?
If the founder is still with the company, that is the ideal starting point. Consider:
- What was their original vision?
- How did they want to reshape the world?
- Has that evolved over time?
- Does it still fit easily with the values held by your target market in 2019?
If yours isn’t a founder-led company, or if it’s grown far beyond its starting team, you should talk to the current leadership:
- Why did they join? Beyond their paycheck, what inspired them to take this position and not another one?
- What would success look like to them? How would they like to see the brand reshape the world in which it operates?
- What are the core company values? Does everyone know them? Do they live by them? Are they operationalised throughout the company, or do they simply live on a poster in the canteen?
Talk to your most passionate customers. It’s worth picking the brains of those who have been with you for the long haul, as well as new evangelists:
- Why did they buy you in the first place?
- How has their experience been with your offering?
- What motivates them to come back to you time and time again?
- What causes matter to them?
- What are they passionate about, in their own words?
- What are their values?
Finally, look for feedback from the wider market and the consumers who you hope to win over to your brand.
- What are their core values? What causes do they find most important?
- Do they see your brand as being aligned to their core values?
- Which brands do they admire, and which ones do they avoid?
The point here is not to construct your brand purpose around the market–consumers will suspect inauthentic purpose. And consumer sentiment changes rapidly, so if you update your purpose to constantly match the prevailing zeitgeist, you’ll always be chasing your tail.
The purpose of the exercise is rather to see where there is a genuine overlap. Where do the values that your brand, and your employees, match those of your most loyal consumers and those you’re hoping to attract in the future?
This overlap is crucial and easily understood by a Venn diagram.
If you can define your brand purpose around the values that are shared amongst these 4 key constituents, then it’s most likely to secure wide-spread buy-in and long-term success.
Whether your challenge is to find a purpose that fits (like American Express), to reset (like American Apparel), or to re-engage (like Gillette), your customers will know when you’ve got it right. Speak to them while you brainstorm about what your purpose might be; ask them what your purpose should be; and check in with them when you’ve decided what it will be. Ensure your revamped messaging translates with authenticity and meaning.