Purpose defines what an organisation does and how it behaves, and to ensure that brand purpose works, R/GA’s Brady Ambler says it is necessary to have a brand operating system. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a professional who hasn’t been lectured about the importance of purpose. At the time of writing this commentary, there are 5.48 billion search results for brand purpose. The world doesn't need any more convincing. In fact, a debate rages on about whether or not we’re now in a post-purpose marketplace. Last year, PRWeek and Campaign magazine hosted a Purpose Summit in London where they asked if purpose had a future at all. 

Yet consumer and employee expectations for stakeholder capitalism are real and they’re not going away. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 80% of global consumers want brands to help solve society’s problems and 79% of employees want their employers to act on social issues. Last year, a study from Harvard Law School found that 60% of global institutional investors apply ESG considerations to their investments.

Coca-Cola’s Matthias Blume, VP of marketing for Asean and South Pacific, recently took the stage at The Drum’s APAC Trends Briefing event saying, "We need to rethink our approach and use our power – the force that we have as marketers – to do a better job. Because it's what consumers, employees and the society around us expect… So we continue to use this purpose as our north star to see what we want to do and how we operate.”

Purpose captures an organisation’s role in the world and informs how it behaves. We shouldn’t be arguing about having a purpose or not. Instead, we should be focused on what to do with purpose once we have one. Purpose is only useful if used properly.

It’s been more than a decade since celebrated author Simon Sinek rightfully argued that leaders must start with why. Now it’s high time we shift our focus to how. In doing so, we should consider three of the biggest reasons brand purpose fails and one approach for making it work – a brand operating system (OS).

Issue 1: Marketing stunts vs behavioural protocols

Another way to say greenwashing or woke-washing is simply purpose-washing. In any case, it's misleading people with what you say, knowing it’s not really what you do. The results can be disastrous. According to a 2022 APAC study by Adobe, 66% of customers will walk away from brands that break their trust and conversely, the most important thing brands can do to earn employee trust is “practice what they preach”. The truth is any single act in isolation that appears out of step with business as usual is simply a stunt, no matter how well-intended. 

Purpose only works when it becomes part of an organisation’s standard operating procedure. And that only happens when purpose is underpinned by behavioural protocols that guide decision making and spell out in practical terms how employees should approach their everyday jobs. We call them brand enablers. Good brand enablers are actionable; they tie back to unmet needs in the market and strategic assets in the company. Brand enablers represent the active ingredients required to translate purpose into cohesive action. They’re the foundation of any healthy brand operating system.

Issue 2: Departmental silos vs cross-org orchestration

Brands cannot live or die with the marketing department alone. A brand is more than just a logo. It is your reason for being how you act and why people might want to join, buy from or support you. It’s the way everything works, looks and feels internally and externally. It’s an organisation’s engine and interface. It takes everyone in the company acting in concert for a brand to thrive.

Similarly, impact can’t be the sole job of the CSR department. If purpose is the highest-order unifier for whatever an organisation says and does, and if purpose is supposed to be beyond profit, then to measure purpose performance, we have to look at overall company impact. Afterall, shouldn’t purpose encourage the entire corporation to be socially responsible?

No one proves this out better than Nike, which over the years has created a brand operating system second to none.

“Our purpose is to move the world forward through the power of sport. Worldwide, we’re levelling the playing field, doing our part to protect our collective playground and expanding access to sport for everyone,” states Nike.

Everything it does from the inside out delivers on this. From its employee-led communities that offer resources to a diverse range of individuals across the company, to new retail experiences like Nike for Every Body, which uses Snapchat AR technology to reimagine store mannequins as dynamic digital models that show how real women – with real bodies – wear and move in Nike apparel.

From its iconic advertising campaigns like Find Your Greatness that champion the athlete in all of us, to the Nike Run Club and Training Club apps that actually help us improve our game.

From Nikeland in Roblox where everyone can explore a limitless world of sport, to its Move to Zero program that protects the future of sport through tangible sustainability.

Even in its approach to partnerships with Apple, Supreme and Off-White, Nike has made product development more progressive.

Recently, we helped a financial services brand in Singapore uncover its purpose, which centred around inclusion. It, in turn, launched a product with flexible pricing to make it easy for customers with different financial situations. It built an adaptable customer experience for customers with different service preferences. It ensured the right internal programs and culture were in place so employees felt safe being their authentic selves. We designed an identity that signalled the brand revolves around people. Through comms and content, we created a diverse brand image that made everyone feel like they belonged. The end result was an NPS score 32 points higher than industry average.

To follow suit, leaders need to embrace a more holistic and synchronous approach for delivering on their purpose. They need to think of their organisation as a brand operating system with each area of the company as a component. At the heart of it all sits the active purpose and brand enablers, which serve as the strategic intent behind everything. Of course, a brand operating system is only possible with the commitment of the CEO. And while on the surface it may seem daunting, building and calibrating a brand operating system is a gradual process.

Issue 3: Big bang transformation vs natural evolution

It’s said it takes 21 days to create or break a habit and 90 days to make it stick. At the corporate level, change is much harder. When companies propose big shifts, it’s often called transformation. Anyone who’s ever been involved with transformation knows things never quite go to plan and the end state can seem far off the mark.

But we shouldn’t think of implementing a brand operating system as a transformation program. Instead, think of it like launching a software program. There’s an MVP that gets things moving and over time, there are new version releases. It’s a never-ending process with small improvements constantly being introduced. There’s a beginning and an end to a transformation. A brand operating system is an evolutionary process. Facilitating ongoing adaptation in a changing environment is a main benefit of the brand operating system approach.

Making it work from day one requires a task force from each component of the brand operating system. The best roadmap for change is the one designed by those who will drive it. Empowering teams with the strategic intent but giving them the freedom to propose the bold ideas necessary creates a shared ambition across the organisation. To keep the brand operating system humming requires teams to bring new ideas in waves. The C-suite then decides how to bundle these updates and when to release them. It’s a hybrid bottom-up, top-down approach that harnesses the power of the whole organisation to keep getting better. 

Brand operating system: Key to the new economy

It’s easy and tempting to resist doing anything too daring in 2023. Concerns about a global recession haven’t gone away. Headlines about big banks like Credit Suisse and Silicon Valley Bank collapsing bring back memories of the 2008 global financial crisis. And news about tech layoffs and reduced consumer spending makes it feel like things aren’t getting any better.

But according to the stock prices of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies, those who chose to innovate throughout the 2008 global financial crisis outperformed those that relied on business-as-usual by 10%. More astoundingly, they also outperformed the market upward of 30% in post-crisis years.

We’re living in a new economy with new, higher expectations in the market that require companies to behave in new and bolder ways. A brand OS provides leaders a model for acting with purpose and growing with intent. It creates a central methodology that unites everyone inside the organisation while providing guidance and space for autonomy. Ultimately, the outputs of a brand operating system help companies maximise relevance in a turbulent world.