Building purpose into your brand

As marketers engage in the relentless search for the tools and means to achieve brand supremacy, thousands of textbooks, memoirs, and how-to books have offered insight and counsel on the dark secrets of marketing success. Most evolve around the familiar tenets of knowing one’s customer, insightfully plotting a category’s competitive white space, and effectively delivering on a consistently relevant and differentiating message to a well-defined target. Tried, trite—and still fundamentally true.

The world’s best brands (however one measures them) understand and practice these basics day in, day out, year upon year. Yet today, as perhaps never before, there is a crisis of trust among the world’s most prominent brands that has not only generated daily headlines about the latest recall, scandal, or indictment, but is now well quantified in a number of studies measuring consumer attitudes around the globe.

The great irony here is that trust has traditionally been considered a table stake in brand perceptions, a necessary value (like quality) for any and all brands to own, but hardly a unique or distinguishing attribute. Today, perhaps sadly, trust stands out as a true differentiator and can be a critical and often challenging element in building brand equity, especially in the financial services, automotive, casual dining, hotels, and insurance sectors.

Yet if the principles behind good marketing and business practices have not changed, neither, one might argue, has our propensity to fail to live up to them as practitioners. Human nature being what it is, some companies, like some people, have either deliberately or inadvertently made promises they can’t keep since the dawn of organized commerce.

What is different, however, is the transparent world we now live and work in and the unprecedented and relentless nature of public exposure to any and all activities surrounding businesses, products, and marketing. Today we all work in glass houses.

This new dynamic has begun to persuade even the most hardened business leaders; driving success must now, as perhaps never before, be tempered by moral accountability. Whether the headline is about questionable manufacturing practices in China, bribery in Mexico, phone hacking in the United Kingdom, or outrage on Wall Street, even the most respected and powerful organizations can be just a blog or tweet away from an instant—and very public—fall from grace.

As a result, organizational leadership finds itself at a communications crossroads. The lesson for some is that greater caution is required in promoting the corporate persona, and they are redoubling efforts to seal leaks and control social expression. It means grudging acknowledgement of the new porosity of information while girding to fight the inevitable public relations brush fires with practiced containment strategies and techniques. Not especially inspiring, but certainly practical.

The world’s best businesses, on the other hand, seem to be taking a different perspective. They tend to view social transparency and corporate responsibility not as a risk or cost of doing business, but rather as an unprecedented new opportunity to tell—and commit to—their brand story in a fresh and publicly accountable way. These companies have decided to walk the talk by infusing a promise into their brand that goes beyond traditional platitudes of “building shareholder value” or ensuring “whiter whites.” They have seized on the new transparency to actually redefine who they are as an organization in terms that both distinguish and motivate.

The power of purpose

The means to identify and implement a strong brand positioning have, of course, become increasingly sophisticated since Jack Trout and Al Ries first popularized the term back in the 1980s with their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, but the core notion has remained essentially the same. It is “outside in” brand definition, built on a perceived customer need and gap assessment of where the most opportunistic space exists in a given market. In this time-worn model, a product or company and, in particular, its brand story, are crafted to fulfill a predetermined role, resulting in a brand idea that often owes more to research than to any innate value or vision organically and philosophically derived from the brand itself.

For decades, this outside-in approach has worked exceedingly well. Where it begins to fall apart, however, is when the great blogging, tweeting, YouTubing world exposes a clever brand story for being only that—an artfully spun yarn versus a fully embraced, defining brand idea. As we advise our clients at Landor, “a brand is as a brand does.” It means that what we actually do as branded organizations is much more important than what we say.

This is, in effect, “inside out” branding—starting from the organic center of a company and peeling away the fluff and selling language to arrive at relevant, credible, higher ground. It is about brand actions, not positioning. And if these actions include meaningful contributions to the greater social good that are consistent with the DNA of a company and its products or services, we believe the result is a true, distinguishing brand purpose.

Does it matter? A new consumer perception study, the Global Corporate Reputation Index, first presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, concluded that “Many top companies outperform their industry averages on citizenship [perceptions] by a more significant margin than performance, indicating the importance of citizenship in standing out from the competition.” In other words, in a world where brand differentiation has become a game of inches, being known as corporately responsible can significantly elevate an organization’s overall leadership perceptions.

Former Procter & Gamble global marketing officer Jim Stengel, author ofGrow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, and with Millward Brown the architect of the “Stengel Study of Business Growth,” puts further meat on these bones in his assessment of “The Stengel 50.” This list of the 50 most successful brands across 28 categories—as empirically defined by their exceptional growth over the past decade versus competition—all shared common attributes, the first of which was that each could be characterized as an ideals-led business.

Stengel’s first rule for sustainable business success? “Brand ideals drive the performance of the highest growth businesses.” He goes on to posit that these brand ideals are derived from “fundamental human values [and] the highest growth businesses are run by business artists, leaders whose primary medium is brand ideals.”

Pretty heady stuff from someone who led marketing for nearly a decade at one of the biggest and, arguably, most competitive and successful innovators in the consumer branding universe. In fact, P&G itself takes this concept of ideals—or purpose-led business—so seriously that it commissioned a select team of WPP agencies, including Landor, Grey, and Hill+Knowlton, to personally interview C-suite leadership at some of the most socially proactive corporations in the world to ask them what they considered were best practices in the realm of purpose-led branding.

After speaking one-on-one with leaders at a dozen major corporations, including American Express, Dell, Ford, General Mills, HP, IBM, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nike, Nokia, Target, and others, we were able to draw some clear conclusions about the building blocks for a successful, purpose-driven brand organization, as outlined in “Dispatch from a new business horizon.” None should come as a major surprise, but all require serious and total commitment to effect measurable and lasting impact. Here’s what we learned:

How to build a successful purpose-led business

Principle 1: View social responsibility through a business lens 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) should not be treated as an afterthought or an independent function separate from the core endeavors of an organization. Rather, it should be central to the ongoing alignment of corporate social actions and business objectives.


IBM has successfully integrated the creation of social good with its business strategy by starting at the top. Its CEO works directly with the VP of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs to initiate programs that both do good and benefit business. One example is the Corporate Service Corps, a hands-on, in-country opportunity for rising IBM leaders to conduct community-driven economic development projects in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. About its benefits to IBM, a company representative stated: “We invested 180 million dollars in corporate citizenship globally, and we produced three times as much in return.”

Principle 2: Make a difference from your position of strength 

However one chooses to define an overarching brand purpose, it should capitalize on what one does best from a business perspective, as well as be meaningful to target audiences (especially employees) and differentiated from the competition.


Nike believes that a planet with more active, healthy people will make a better world as well as better customers. Dave Cobban, consumer mobilization director at Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation department, says, “Every $1 spent on sport saves $3 in health care in the United States. We’re doing a lot of research to show that the future of humanity depends on physical movement.” With this attitude, Nike has identified the domains that its products contribute to—sports and health—and focuses on things it can do in these realms. It has built stadiums and playing fields, organized inner-city tournaments, provided sports equipment and training, and established foundations. It’s a perspective that benefits our world—and Nike’s business.

Principle 3: Create “thick value” 

A brand purpose must be a sustainable idea that transcends market and competitive trends. It should not be based on a fad or the latest marketing buzz; rather, it should reflect the way an organization chooses to conduct business, day in and day out.


Nokia has developed a service called Nokia Data Gathering that is only tangentially related to its core business. It allows health workers to collect health data in the field, and upload it automatically with geo-positioning information. Rather than waiting five weeks for processing, as it did under the previous system, an organization such as the World Health Organization can track in real time how things are progressing from house to house or town to town after a tsunami or other disaster, and respond much more quickly and effectively. Nokia provides this service free of charge to the WHO and other health and social services organizations, but the same system could be sold commercially to others. By creating a service for the benefit of others, Nokia concurrently created a long-term business opportunity for itself.

Principle 4: Walk, then talk 

It is far better to first inculcate brand purpose behavior within the organization so it becomes how the company truly acts and sees (rather than just talks about) itself—before going public. If it isn’t real, it will not take long for constituents to know—and they will not be quiet about it! Authenticity matters most of all.


Dell set a good example of this principle in action by waiting to go public until its YouthConnect program was up and running. This initiative, which teaches problem solving and technological skills to underserved children worldwide, began around 2000 as an unbranded foundation. Initially serving U.S. children and their educational needs, the program later expanded to other countries following Dell’s global business growth. In 2009 it was branded and formalized, and only at that point did Dell begin to speak publicly about it.

Principle 5: Focus internally and the rest will follow 

If how a company acts is more important than what it says, make sure all employees understand and personally embrace the brand purpose and all it implies. They are the brand, and if employees don’t buy it, neither will the customer.

Hewlett-Packard takes pains to ensure that every employee understands his or her role in making a positive impact in the community. As one of the largest technology companies in the world, HP sees itself in a unique position to use its global reach and scale to serve billions. And it has found that when its employees engage with their communities, they are much more likely to stay at HP. So HP encourages its people to volunteer in roles that use their expertise and passion. HP itself offers skills-based and pro bono programs for employees to learn new skills, partner across departments, get out of their comfort zone, and grow—and then sends these brand ambassadors out into the world. It’s an approach that benefits employees, their community, and the company.

Principle 6: Partner generously 

Seek opportunities to partner with other brands and causes that relate to and build upon an organization’s values. There is a multiplier effect in focused and consistently applied effort that leads to measurably better results when practiced in concert with a good partner.

General Mills (GMI) originally designed the Box Tops for Education program as a way to give money to America’s public schools while selling more General Mills products. But GMI soon opened the program to a number of partners to increase its fundraising ability. What GMI may have lost in ownership, it has more than made up for in reach and relevance. Almost half of redemptions today come from non-GMI products, and Box Tops for Education has raised some $450 million for schools since 1996. People have noticed: In the first quarter of 2012,Forbes ranked General Mills as its No.1 “Most reputable company in America.”

Principle 7: It is a journey, not a destination 

Being a purpose-led brand is not an end in itself but rather a well-defined path for success over the long term; it should be equally as vibrant and relevant 10 years into the future as it is today. Aim high, work patiently, and keep a clear eye on the target.

Sound easy? It isn’t. Not every company is capable of both the honest self-appraisal that precedes discovery of a compelling brand purpose, followed by the hard, long-term effort required to deliver against it consistently across all brand actions. But those who embark upon this journey in earnest will find it leads to rich rewards in every sense.

And make no mistake: The world’s most successful brands are in business to win. The best of them, however, have recognized that doing good is, indeed, good business.


This article was first published in the Hub (July/August 2012)

© 2012 Landor. All rights reserved.