30 Sep 2021

Brand purpose:
A recipe for success

Nora Bradshaw highlights key questions to help brands identify and communicate purpose authentically. 

Nora Bradshaw, Co-Head of Strategy Superunion New York.

Today brands must navigate the intersecting complexities of a dynamic social landscape, high customer expectations and increased scrutiny. Brands that lack clarity of purpose often find themselves in unfamiliar territory without a map. 

Subway is no stranger to breaking out the GPS. The brand recently found itself in hot water again, facing pressure from some franchisees after soccer superstar and brand spokeswoman Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the U.S. national anthem during the Tokyo Olympics. 

These partners argue that by associating with Rapinoe, her views are negatively impacting the company's reputation and sales - and consequently their own livelihoods as store owners. 

In partnering with Rapinoe, Subway adopted a progressive, outspoken activist and athlete to represent their brand, apparently without considering if her values aligned with theirs or their stakeholders. Now it has to manage a complex backlash. 

But, collaborating with one spokesperson isn't enough to define Subway's entire brand purpose. The big question businesses need to ask themselves is: Why align yourself with someone else's values when you can't even define your own? 

Brands should find their purpose as quickly as they can. There are four key questions that can help businesses speed up this process to identify and communicate purpose authentically, no matter their size. 

What is the change we want to see in the world? 

Consumers today are looking for brands to take a stand on the issues they care about. It's no longer enough to just put out a good product. Brands must establish a more meaningful position in the world, rooted in the positive impact they hope to make. 

You have to set a north star for your organization that is rooted in the change you seek to make. That bold ambition will give your organization something to strive for and give your brand a reason to exist. 

Patagonia is the most high-profile example of a brand with purpose baked into its DNA. Its ambition to "save our home planet" aligns to clear values and informs every decision, from the employee experience to social action. 

Your purpose needs to be linked to your business. There needs to be a clear and powerful connection between product, service and purpose. And if you can find this fit, the synergy between these elements naturally sparks growth and innovation. 

Subway hasn't figured out what it stands for and now faces a brand communication crisis, finding itself in the company of brands such as Papa John's, which is actively associated with division - whether it meant to or not. 

What do we want to inspire? 

From the outset, brands need a clear picture of who they want their customers to be. A lot of new brands are built with an audience in mind. 

Brands lacking clarity of purpose should identity their customers of today, while recognizing it is impossible for any brand, to be liked and loved by everyone. 

At some point, every brand will have to make difficult choices to kill their darlings and alienate some audiences. But without a clear purpose, they are more likely to alienate everyone. 

How do we build brand purpose from the inside? 

Internally, brands need to flip the hierarchy. 

Brands will always answer to a lot of different audiences: the public, the board, communities. But the people who hold the power are often sitting at the bottom of the pyramid: employees. 

Employees are the most influential group in driving a brand's success. They are the most impactful advocates. More than this, they are the connective tissue that transforms engagement into profit. 

Brand leaders must figure out how to bring employees and customers along with them. By involving, including and galvanizing these groups, and illustrating their roles in the process, they can bring brand purpose to life. 

How do we communicate purpose?

When it comes to communication, there is an old golden rule: People don't care about what you say; it's all about what you do. 

The channels and methods brands use to communicate purpose are not just inboxes, they are vehicles that allow people to experience what your brand stands for. Your communications are an extension of your brand. It needs to exist in a meaningful way. 

The deadliest sin for a brand is for your customers to feel you are fake. Brands can't afford for audiences to think thoughtfulness is an afterthought and flashiness is the first thought. The brands that are winning are the ones that aren't doing that. Be genuine. 

While many brands are now enjoying a period of growth, it is important to recognize the importance of taking stock and reassessing their role in the society we live in. And doing it before it is too late. 

The Trump era has ended. There is no longer a villain to contrast values against. Now when your brand stands for something, people will notice and hold you accountable. 

Purpose is more than a marketing campaign. It isn't cold-blooded opportunism or hot-headed passion. It is an ever-present north star that can guide your brand through uncertainty, through criticism and confusion. It is the most powerful way you can build the future of your business. 

Now is the time for brands to recognize the importance of purpose. As Subway shows, it is arguably the most important ingredient on the menu. 

First published in Ad Age