Purpose is still a keenly sought-after trend in advertising, but the best companies - Patagonia, Co-op - don't just talk about a purpose, they put real thought into how it informs their business, and put real money into making that purpose a reality, argues Blue State Digital's Samir Patel.

It’s just a few weeks into the New Year, and Gillette has already reinvigorated the ‘brand purpose’ debate for 2019. After months of brands jumping on feminism, #metoo, protests (from Nike to Pepsi) and more, we’re back to asking if it’s right or wrong for brands to attach themselves to the issues that matter.

But there are two big things missing from this discussion: values and metrics. And they both come down to one thing: money.

When we talk about purpose, trust, social impact or taking a stand, the companies who do it right put their values first. For these brands, those values matter so much, that they set targets and measure their impact, and genuinely invest to achieve them.

In short: if you want to get a measure on whether a brand really has a ‘purpose’, follow the money - not the headlines.

Companies who want to claim purpose as a core value need to go beyond saying they believe in being responsible, and actively stop doing things that may be in conflict with this - things that may be in an ethical grey area or unsustainable. That means putting proper metrics around them.

Brands like the UK’s Co-op put its values above anything else in its operation. Even if you only know Co-op as a supermarket, if you become a member and shop there, 1% of what you spend goes to local causes - £19 million across the UK in 2017. Co-op is owned by its members, not big investors, and those members have a say in how it's run. The company puts principles above profits, and is founded on a set of values that translate to a different, fairer and better way of doing business.

In the U.S., Patagonia is much loved for being driven by values. They state that they’re “in business to save our home planet…We aim to use the resources we have—our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations—to do something about it.” If that means sacrificing sales for values, they will (although the opposite happened and they gained sales).

When brands put their money where their mouth is, it pays off for everyone. As the companies above show, standing by your purpose in a real way translates to a long-term stability, sales and love from the public.

But before purpose becomes public, and when it comes to deciding what a brand’s ‘purpose’ might be, companies need to work much harder.

Generating insights from the market, from customers, and from inside the business - and tying these together to create something that actually works rather than doing something that feels tacked on (or tacky) - is essential. Without this legwork, brands are letting everyone down at the first step. Setting up the right metrics for success is also vital at this stage.

This process might mean tackling hard issues - such as whether an authentic purpose can be achieved while customer experience teams are still often entirely separate from marketing and advertising departments. Customer service, experience and so on sound pedestrian - but are vital for brands who want to have a credible purpose. If a brand stands for something, how do customers feel that through their different touchpoints and experiences?

Internally, alongside metrics, firms need to establish new ways to measure and reward success. Many companies are driven by measurements such as top-of-mind awareness, which are tied to above the line advertising but are often irrelevant to purpose or business outcomes, and can’t be used to measure them. Brands need to become more innovative in their measures, and think about how they measure things like trust, reputation, earned conversation, and even positive customer experience. Bringing all staff on board through appropriate internal communications, rewards, and incentives is also as essential as any other element.

And then - when it’s all in place, and it’s time to implement - Gillette might provide a salutary lesson.

Gillette has said that January’s controversial ad marks the start of a change in policy, whereby it reviews “all public-facing content against a set of defined standards meant to ensure we fully reflect the ideals of Respect, Accountability and Role Modeling”. It also plans to donate $1m a year, for the next three years, to youth organisation Boys & Girls Clubs of America. But here’s the thing: in asking for praise before it had even done this, Gillette angered many.

If this is the start of Gillette becoming a more values-driven organisation (and that would be a big, unexpected shift) then great - but only time will tell. Maybe, for a while, it’s a good idea to do the right thing - without asking for praise before you’ve started.

In short: structure your business to embody and stand for values first, and let everything follow.

The next time a brand inevitably hits headlines for taking a stand, let’s not get carried away. We should applaud their good intentions, and hope for more. But if the brand isn’t led by its values - and isn't open to the metrics and cost implications of driving those values forward - it’s not purpose. It’s just PR.