On the bus to work an RY colleague recently overheard a group of friends discussing life. They covered politics quickly and disdainfully – ‘All the same, they don’t have a clue’ – but spent twenty minutes discussing the fine differences between H&M and Zara, rating the tools on their banking apps and speculating about the soundtrack for the 2016 John Lewis Christmas ad.

It’s a good time to be a brand

This little vignette highlights just how integral brands are to our lives and how seriously we take them. Loved or hated, brands are credible and worthy of serious discussion. Can this still be said of politics? The result of the EU referendum has left the UK, and many nations around the world, in shock; fearful of its economic and political fallout and thunderstruck by the economic and social divisions it has highlighted. Everyone, seemingly, put their attention in the wrong place – and we've ended up somewhere that will likely benefit no-one.

Emotion vs Reason

The referendum result was a reminder that you can’t win an emotional argument with rational answers. All of us living in Brandland should take note of this. In fact, Emotion vs Reason may be the defining meta-meme of this era of branding, with Emotion very much ahead at present. Consider the re-emergence of populism, of movements led by ‘charismatic’ leaders with easy answers to complicated problems. The EU referendum result was a victory for shallow, feel-good populism, and Trump is surely the ultimate populist.

Welcome to post-truth politics

This is what some commentators have called a post truth world – a world in which many people prefer fictions that make them feel good to truths that depress or confuse them. In this context, it’s enlightening to assess the Brexit campaign or Trump as brand purposes – each making big, sweeping emotional promises. We want our country back! Independence Day! A different kind of politics! America is broke and only I can fix it! Regardless of your personal politics, these purposes have engaged and energised millions of people.

As brand practitioners, we must take note

And it’s against this backdrop that we publish our second Fit for Purpose Index. While, we’ve had lots of questions, we don’t have all the answers yet – we’re still trying to figure it out. Here are a few that we’ve particularly grappled with; we’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share a point of view that can help us get closer to a conclusion.

What’s the purpose of purpose post-2016?

Is purpose the pathway to a better world, the catalyst that fuses sustainability and business strategies or the ethical itch that inspires you to go to work? We still think it can be all of these things – and a vital anchor for organisations in these turbulent times. Unlike established brands, which generally view their purpose as a distinct entity, these new brands ‘just do it’. Their purpose is simply the way they operate in a world where you cannot hide from the impact of your actions.

Is purpose the pathway to a better world, the catalyst that fuses sustainability and business strategies? We think it can be.

 

Is authenticity necessary any more?

We’ve argued consistently that purpose must be authentic; that it’s more than worthy words. But what if post-truth consumers just want to feel good and turn away from brands that do good? Will the rise of populism see the decline of purpose? Our current assessment is that authenticity still matters, because, as those friends on the bus demonstrated, consumers are more hardnosed and rational about brand choices than ever.

How can brands find their authentic purpose?

If authenticity still matters, how can organisations find their authentic purpose? We look to brands like The Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s, which have been purposeful for a long time. In every case, their purpose evolves from their cultural and economic history. Marks & Spencer could become ‘The world’s most sustainable major retailer’ because Plan A continues a journey that started over 100 years ago. And The Body Shop can aspire to ‘Enrich, not Exploit’ because Anita Roddick created it on this very premise.

This doesn’t mean that only established brands can have authentic purpose. Sport England was effectively reformed seven years ago, but its ‘This Girl Can’ campaign ticks all the boxes as far as authenticity is concerned.

What qualities drive purpose?

There are obviously brands that see purpose in a rather post-truth way – as a shortcut to a lift in sales. We think they’ll be found out in the long run. Why? Because in the Age of the Audience, inauthentic, unprincipled brands are being ‘outed’ on social media every minute of every day.

Brands with an authentic purpose know this. They’re realistic about what they can achieve. They report their progress honestly. They stick to their purpose through good and bad times. Some might even be called courageous. Take Pearson: there’s a brand that’s doggedly pursued the same purpose for years. Another defining quality of today’s standout brands with purpose is their strong commitment to inclusivity. They don’t inhabit parallel universes from their stakeholders. Instead, they engage and involve employees, customers, investors and partners to achieve change.

Can brands with purpose save the world?

This may seem a ridiculous question, but take a moment to think about it. Go and ask the friends on the bus. Who’s best placed to save the planet – Walmart or Donald Trump? There is a serious point here too. Because if politicians remain entrenched in post-truth populism, continually making quickfix promises to win elections, who else can take a long-term view? Perhaps brands with integrity and authentic purpose are best placed to lead the world to a more sustainable future? It won’t be easy, and people will need convincing. But it’s a view that I think is certainly worth exploring.

Can brands with purpose save the world? This may seem a ridiculous question but think about it… It's a possibility worth exploring.

 

This article is part of a series of thought leadership pieces as part of our Fit For Purpose research - to learn more simply download the publication below.

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