Brand purpose cannot start with comms

Written by Salonee Gadgil

Brand purpose has become more central to our discussions over the years, claiming a coveted seat at panel discussions. You know the sort, where woke creative types with sombre expressions, quirky glasses and a righteous keep cup gather to talk about important things. I go to them too, with my keep cup – it’s made with recycled materials, thank you very much.

I’m not imagining the rise of brand purpose. I like evidence. A quick nosey around Google Trends will show you how the global search volumes for the term ‘brand purpose’ have been on the rise over the last five years.

Brand purpose has displaced ‘brand storytelling’ in popular discourse. Part of me misses the days when brands told stories. It was a simpler world, because stories could be whimsical. Stories didn’t have to be about complex subjects like race, gender discrimination, disability, and gay rights. Stories could be about going from rags to riches on the back of a secret fried chicken recipe, or about empowerment à la L’Oreal. Yes, shockingly, L’Oreal’s ‘because you’re worth it’ spiel was meant to appeal to feminists back in the 70s. Their ads told a lovely story of how every woman deserves expensive products.

The thing about stories is that they can be crafted in retrospect. Brand purpose cannot. Purpose starts with culture and behaviour not with external communications and marketing. And if you try to talk without having walked the walk, you will get called out. Just look at what happened to L’Oreal.

As a brand, if you want to make a public statement and spend your pennies on a flashy ad campaign about how #BlackLivesMatter, then you best have black people within your organisation. Otherwise you risk a 16-year-old walking past your open plan office, which is of course within a co-working space with a ping-pong table, and revealing to the world on Instagram Live that your creative team is actually six white men called Nick. Ok, maybe one is an ethnically ambiguous Nick, but still. And you would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

It is impossible for any brand to ignore what’s happening in the world right now. The current anti-racism movement is one all organisations have to get involved in one way or another. This isn’t an opportunity to weave #BlackLivesMatter into your external communications or campaigns, or suddenly claim ending racism is your brand’s purpose. It is however an opportunity for us all to look inward, identify ways in which we can do better, listen to what the world is saying, question your own ways of doing things, change your recruitment policies, give your employees time off work to protest or volunteer for the cause. Then if you put up a black square in solidarity or cast a black model in your last advert, the meddling kids may just let you get away with it.


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