April 26, 2017

Why Brand Purpose Is Here to Stay

What’s next? It’s a question that isn’t optional in marketing. If you fail to see—or create—what’s next, you won’t survive. At Superhuman, we do a lot of talking about what’s next. As purpose-driven marketing spreads, the question begs to be asked: Will it eventually get replaced by something else?

Most concepts don’t last forever. Frameworks naturally evolve and branch off into new schools of thought. The best ideas don’t just survive but evolve, and ideas that don’t have legs die off.

So, will brand purpose eventually change, die off or get replaced by something shinier? Ironically, the more we read articles like this, the more certain we feel that it won’t. Arguments that brand purpose is a “flavor-of-the-month” strategy that should be replaced with an emphasis on price or features and benefits only further convince us how essential it really is.

Price, features and benefits can easily be copied. Meaning can’t.

But purpose isn’t just a marketing term. It’s a fundamental concept, one that goes far beyond advertising and into topics like religion, philosophy and literature.

In Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” speech, he says that he didn’t create this rhetorical device from scratch. He just codified it by studying people like Martin Luther King Jr. To Sinek, the “golden circle” is a way of structuring a story that people who become great leaders inherently understand.

This puts purpose on a similar tool shelf next to archetypes, a concept created by Carl Jung. His theory of archetypes argues that there are internal character traits we inherently recognize, and these characters are present in all the greatest stories throughout history. Again, Jung didn’t dictate that all movies needed to include a sage archetype. Like Simon Sinek, he just observed this and codified it.

Archetypes aren’t going anywhere, and purpose isn’t either. They’re both structures that tap into something fundamental about how humans see the world. They transcend cultures and eras, which are what make them such powerful anchors for brands that hope to survive for a long time.

Archetype theory and brand purpose marketing make one another stronger. An archetype provides a brand positioning, and purpose provides a framework for owning and acting on that positioning.

What’s most likely to happen is that tools will surface in the next few years that help purpose-driven brands evolve organically. Even brands with the most airtight and resonant strategies will need to understand how populations, technology, natural resources, science and culture are changing. Their success will depend on how well they anticipate change and make their purpose relevant in a “brave new world.”

That brings us back to another common misconception, that being a purpose-driven brand is about having a long “I believe” anthem on TV. Featuring an earnest, caring founder promising to do the right thing is just a tactic. Not every brand purpose is going to lead to an exciting founder’s story, or tearjerker cause marketing, although they may look similar from a superficial level.

Acting on a purpose is about finding an authentic belief and running your whole company in a way that pays off on it. For many of these brands, a 90-second “I believe” commercial would be anything but strategic. If they truly understand their audience’s values, they’re much more likely to be in the lab creating something new, or out in the world doing something that matters to their audience.

The ability to create meaning out of purpose will become what separates great agencies from derivative agencies. Any ad agency can help a brand fill out a belief and purpose template and then turn that into an emotionally-driven spot. But it takes a certain amount of cultural nuance to build a brand purpose that truly understands its customers as something other than dollar signs or stereotypes. Beyond that, it takes extensive cultural research to understand how a brand can keep their purpose relevant as conventional thinking falls away over the decades to come.

The world is not the same as it was when most of the biggest brands were created. It won’t be the same in forty years. Whether a brand lasts will depend on what frameworks we use not just to build a strong foundation, but to bring it to life meaningfully in a changing world. These frameworks won’t replace brand purpose. They’ll just enhance it.

Becky Lang and Van Horgen

Illustration and animation by Stacia Service

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