In the current climate, brand purpose is linked with social good but that’s an oversimplification, argues Dr Darren Coleman.

Brand purpose concerns why a brand exists, its reason for being or fundamental premise. Deep and meaningful stuff – but deep and meaningful thinking is required if brands are to realise their full potential as valuable business assets.

Patagonia and Toms Shoes are cited as brands with a genuine purpose grounded in social responsibility and ethical norms. Similarly, Dutch bank Triodos has a strong, authentic purpose; it only invests in activities that have a positive social and environmental impact. These brands have a track record of doing social good that span years, and in some cases decades, which gives their brand credibility many can only dream of.

But equating brand purpose purely with social good is an oversimplification. Premier Inn’s purpose is ‘Making guests feel brilliant through a good night’s sleep’; for KPMG it is to ‘turn knowledge into value’, and at Barclays it’s ‘helping people achieve their ambition – in the right way’.

For these, and other ‘purpose-driven’ brands, the goods, services or experiences they deliver are a means to an end. They express brand purpose.

But brand purpose as espoused by many commentators often simply overlaps with brand. If you’ve defined your brand values and they’re properly embedded within your organisation, won’t they do the same thing?

Here’s a quick test: next time you see the word ‘purpose’ in the context of a branding article change it to ‘values’. For example, ‘We’re guided by our brand purpose’ becomes ‘We’re guided by our brand values’; ‘We recruit people who align with our brand purpose’ becomes ‘We recruit people who align with our brand values’. I think you’ll find this does the trick.

Purpose is also cited as driving performance via the customer and brand alignment of deeply held views or world perspectives. But research (Zhang & Bloemer, 2008) has shown how personal values and brand values alignment drives performance. The importance of alignment is not new news.

And when brands need to take a stand on controversial issues, make tough decisions or recover from difficult situations, shouldn’t it be values that are called on rather than purpose?

Classical strategic terms such as mission and vision are frequently confused or worse still used interchangeably.

Only the other week I was at a conference where the CMO of a reputable brand mixed corporate and brand purpose, mission, vision and values into a cocktail of confusion. This meant their talk drifted between different units of analysis (corporate/brand) and across them (purpose, mission, vision and values). Puzzling and depressing in equal measures.

Brand purpose is not synonymous with corporate social responsibility but it is common for brand purpose to be considered this way – frequently under the guise of a brand having a “social purpose”. Notwithstanding this point, brands have had a purpose beyond profit for decades – think of Johnson & Johnson, Cadbury, Rowntree.

It feels like corporate social responsibility has been rebranded as brand purpose by branding professionals.

I always read brand purpose articles with interest and an open mind. This is in the hope that the unique contribution brand purpose makes to the branding profession will become clear. But it’s difficult to see how brand purpose paves new ground. It feels more like walking a path paved by brand, strategy or CSR folk – especially when they are combined.

And here’s the bit that grinds. If branding professionals can’t put daylight between brand purpose and well-established brand, strategy or corporate social responsibility terms it begs the question: what purpose does brand purpose serve?

This is an edited version of a longer article (WARC subscribers can it read here: Does brand purpose really serve a brand purpose?) which forms part of Building Brand Experiences, authored by Dr Darren Coleman and published by Kogan Page.