Purpose: Industry buzzword or vital to brand survival?

By: MetropolitanRepublic Head of Innovation, Dylan Fortune

There are two perspectives of purpose-led marketing currently in the mainstream consciousness of companies.

MetropolitanRepublic Head of Innovation, Dylan Fortune.

One is that it is a strategic drive to align with a cause or movement as and when it is convenient or beneficial to do so. Perhaps we’d find more than a handful of brands adopting this strategy among the 400-odd advertisers who boycotted Facebook recently in the #stophateforprofit campaign?

The other sees it as the act of pursuing a guiding principal greater than the product or service that the company provides to make a tangible and lasting difference in the world. Here, two retail brands Pattagonia Inc. and Outer Known serve as examples.

An American clothing company built around social activism, Patagonia was established when founder Yvon Chouinard, a mountain climbing enthusiast, started creating climbing gear that didn’t damage the rock face in the same way that the gear he bought did.

This ambition to look after the environment became the driving force and ethos of the business. Today, it is committed to teaching and training the next generation of environmental activists, while being ethical and sustainable in its approach to product creation.

Founded by world famous surfer, Kelly Slater, the Outer Known clothing brand’s guiding principal is sustainability of the ocean and cleaning beaches and oceans of plastic waste is part of its day-to-day activities. It recycles the material collected to create its various products, and the sale thereof finances more clean up initiatives, generating profits for shareholders and driving advocacy from like-minded consumers. 

Critically, these two examples demonstrate what it is to have purpose and how this purpose permeates every aspect of the business, from executive decision-making to sales channel selection and post-sale responsibility. In addition, they illustrate a core aspect to purpose-based companies: that purpose is not wallpaper or a short-term solution to sales.

And MetropolitanRepublic concurs: Purpose is a rationale for existing; sales and profits are a byproduct of pursuing purpose effectively.

The reason that purpose is so vital for companies in today’s environment is that consumer consciousness is rising, Gen Z has arrived, and Cancel Culture is the new ‘thing’. Markets no longer support companies or brands that are seen to have detrimental practices towards consumers, communities, the ecological environment, or that just view consumers as a resource to be exploited for profit.

In the above vein, the Triple Bottom Line perspective is an emergent actionable business framework that champions a focus on social and environmental concerns alongside the pursuit of profit. Within this agenda, companies shift their thinking to towards outcomes for people and the planet, and the pursuit of these then facilitates the generation of profit.

However, the underlying prerequisite for truly unlocking the value of the Triple Bottom Line perspective remains ‘purpose’. It is purpose that enables companies to reframe industry boundaries and open blue oceans in highly contested markets. It is purpose that allows questions to be asked differently from competitors, and arrive at unique solutions to common problems, and it is purpose that delivers competitive advantage by carving out niches which are difficult to replicate.

A case study from South Africa illustrates the importance of purpose in guiding business strategy. Insurance company, Discovery, launched a banking offering in 2018 that positions it in a different niche to competitors. Discovery Bank’s purpose proposition is centred around rewarding positive banking behaviour change with market-leading incentives and dynamic interest rates that change as clients increasingly manage their money well.

It’s a no-brainer, purpose is not about aligning to the fleeting trends of public opinion to make short-term sales. It is about giving your brand a long-term mission to accomplish and then becoming the mechanism that consumers choose to align themselves with.

That is how you build longevity into business, that is how you compete effectively in current markets, and that is how you justify your existence to the ever-increasing skepticism of public opinion.