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Purpose-driven branding – who does it right?

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2016 Dino Reichmuth

Mark Ritson, in his brilliant video, called brand purpose “a trendy distraction” and spectacularly sent it to the marketing hell. Ritson claims that companies, which talk about improving the world and at the same time avoid paying corporate taxes, are simply hypocritical. Only brands with clear conscience should be (morally) allowed to include brand purpose in their communication.

We usually agree with Mark Ritson but in this case the world is not black and white. We don’t think it’s ok when companies selling cereal full of sugar try to persuade consumers that it’s a healthy choice. We’re not ok when banks invest a lot of money to communicate integrity, instead of simply being on their customers’ side. We, in general, are not ok when companies don’t do what they preach. Growingly, neither are consumers and that’s why the idea of brand purpose is getting so popular. However, we are more willing to give these businesses some slack and forgive part of their hypocrisy. Here’s why:

a) First of all, the growing pressure on companies to do some good and be socially responsible has more advantages than downsides. Even small gestures from multi-billion giants can literally save someone’s life.

b) Secondly, there are companies, which are guilty as hell but which simply want to change (or understand that they have to change, that’s fine too). It will take them decades to implement more socially responsible strategies.

c) And last but not least, not every brand purpose needs to be socially responsible. Some brands are here to entertain us, indulge us or simply reassure us that our not so great life choices are fine, too.

Today, we want to give credit to three corporate brands, which use brand purpose not only to build their communication (relatively easy) but to drive their business strategies and operations (very difficult and extremely time-consuming). Here they are.

Danone – focus on health

Danone (Dannon in the US) is a brand with a single-minded mission: to generate health through food for as many people as possible. Danone not only focuses its communication on health benefits and runs health-related programmes (e.g. “Eat Like a Champ” in the UK or the world’s biggest football tournament for children aged 10 to 12 – Danone Nations Cup) but also constantly improves the formulas of its products to make them healthier (e.g. eliminating GMO ingredients in many of its products in the US). However, in contrast to many other companies communicating health, Danone goes one step further.

Danone spent the first decade of the 2000’s redefining its product portfolio so that it’s in line with its mission. It has divested all businesses, which don’t generate health, even if they were generating profit (beer, biscuits, cereal, meat, cheese, sauces etc.) and acquired the ones, which are health-related, for example, baby food Numico or WhiteWave Foods – premium natural beverages and health-focused foods.

Danone’s sustainability goals are as important as its business objectives and the brand seems to be truly committed to making the world a better place to live and changing people’s habits to those that are healthier.

Philips – focus on meaningful innovation

Previously a centrally managed company with a very wide portfolio of products, Philips has changed dramatically since the appointment of new CEO Frans Van Houtem in 2011. Now, a nimbler organisation has a new, clear purpose: to improve people’s lives through meaningful innovations and a streamlined offering focusing on products, which can measurably change people’s lives for better.

Philips’s product roadmap has changed to better reflect the brand purpose: moving from TV sets and home cinemas to health care and well-being solutions, including breastfeeding products, electronic pain relief devices, respiratory solutions and ultrasound products that reduce infant mortality.

Although innovation has always been at the heart of the Phillips brand strategy, with the aforementioned change the company has started building new elements in its brand equity: “meaningfulness” and “care”. Philips now strives to build an image of an organisation investing only in the innovations which matter to consumers, and which prove that Philips cares about their well-being. It differentiates Philips from other innovation-based companies, for which innovation is often the end goal.

Pearson – focus on education

Pearson has reinvented itself multiple times. It was set up as a construction company, and throughout its history used to own (or had a substantial stake in) Madame Tussauds, Chessington Zoo, a telecom, a French winery, a few TV production companies, the Financial Times, the Economist, Longman and Penguin. The only thing these all companies have in common is the fact that, profitable or not, Pearson has sold all of them.

Nowadays, Pearson’s purpose is to improve people’s lives through education and it puts its time and money only in products and businesses, which have educational value and can prove efficacy. For example, the company has acquired multiple testing and assessment businesses, a few chains of English language schools and digital education companies. It also invested substantial resources in Project Literacy – an ambitious programme, whose objective is to eliminate illiteracy by 2030. The company’s efforts were appreciated this year at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where Pearson won the Grand Prix for the “Alphabet of Illiteracy” integrated campaign.

The three companies are not there yet, when it comes to fully delivering on their brand purpose and one can notice some inconsistencies in their behaviour. However, they are on a good path, further on their way than many other businesses and should be given credit for that. It’s clear that brand purpose is for them something more than just a marketing tool.

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Magda Adamska is the founder of BrandStruck.

BrandStruck ithe only online database of brand strategy case studies.
This is a tool that is dedicated to brand and marketing professionals, allowing them to better understand the positioning of the world’s most admired brands, the similarities and differences between them and to learn more about certain categories.

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