Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Maihri Gill

The Power of Purpose: how brands can communicate their purpose on social

By Maihri Gill, Strategist at Born Social

Brand Purpose is an inherently good thing and yet, perhaps one of the most divisive conversations in the marketing industry.

I’m sure we’ve all seen the P word strewn across our client briefs, industry press, and award entries (and winners for that matter). While the concept isn’t new, over the last two years in particular, we’ve seen ‘brand purpose’ become more prevalent. Perhaps due to the growing buying power of a more critical and enlightened generation, or the subsequent collective understanding that brands that do good, simply do better.

Of course, every brand has a reason to be, otherwise customers wouldn’t buy your product or service, but the ‘brand purpose’ talked about more frequently today goes beyond profit. It’s also categorised as the why behind your brand’s existence. What do you stand for? What causes do you contribute to? And how do you give back to the communities you operate in?

Defining purpose is one thing, communicating it authentically is a whole other ball game. We’ve all seen what happens when it goes wrong (normally due to it being a fairly superficial effort and falling into the category of ‘woke-washing’), and seldom talk about it going right – perhaps because it’s a harder job.

From marketing veterans to today’s consumers, there are people who are of the opinion that it’s simply not a brand’s place to deliver on purpose, and that brands purely exist to ‘sell stuff’. Regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, we know that people increasingly expect more from those with influence, and if purpose is a way to deliver on that expectation, it’s worth looking more closely at how to make the most of it.

Brand purpose needs to be treated as an evolution of brand-building, and a linear, top-down narrative just won’t cut it. It’s crucial to understand it’s not just about the purpose- story you tell, but all the stories that reinforce it, told by others. Social can unlock so much power here, but it can be tricky to know where to start (and let’s face it – a little intimidating). Taking the fundamental and timeless truths of brand-building, and applying them to new environments, is a good place to start.

From a tactic to a lever

The challenge with purpose, and perhaps where the polarisation stems from, is that historically it’s been used and therefore perceived as a tactic. Too often we see brands treating purpose as a content pillar rather than a lens through which they view all of their social activity, and this approach will only ever be perceived as pseudo-purposeful.

The pandemic has shown us time and time again that what a brand says is less important than what it actually does. It’s less about marketing what you do and more about doing it. For ‘purpose’ to be received successfully, it has to be relevant, sincere and measurable, so before any campaign or communication, it’s crucial to really question why you’re doing it – are your ads marrying up with your acts?

It’s also important to be selective about what you share, and make a call on what to talk about and what to feel good about. The role of marketing and specifically in social is to authentically elevate the purpose and engage people in it – not to build every CSR activity into the content plan. Know the purpose stories you want to talk about, and tell them over and over again.

Build with community

The rise of digital and the ever-evolving social landscape has seen brand-building become democratised and decentralised, which means consistency is under threat. In the social environment, your brand purpose can manifest in so many ways, and the narrative often lies in the hands of others. Brands of tomorrow lean into the lack of control, and see challenge as opportunity.

To build with community, you first have to know who they are. While it may sound obvious, knowledge is power, and having a clear understanding of your audience, what drives them and how they interact with your brand will help to land a message with relevance. Similarly, it’s OK to bring them on the purpose journey with you; prioritise transparency over perfection and don’t underestimate the insight you can gain from your community by lowering those boundaries.

Another way to build with community is to pass the mic. Creators and curators often get a bad rep in marketing, but done right, can be seen as a credible extension of your brand purpose. Tommy Hilfiger’s partnership with FutureLearn is a great example of empowered creators equally owning and creating space for authentic conversation. Driven by Hilfiger’s overarching sustainability mission to create fashion that Wastes Nothing and Welcomes All, FutureLearn courses were designed to champion those often underrepresented in fashion in collaboration with creators Indya Moore, The Compton Cowboys and Mogli.

Approach channels in clusters

When we look at today’s social landscape and the rate of change, there’s no doubt that digital has brought with it a splintering of attention across devices, platforms and formats. It can seem chaotic, but harnessing it means your brand purpose can be heard and felt at an immense scale.

This means really embracing a diverse set of platforms, creating a complimentary social ecosystem where each platform, and format for that matter, has its place. Crafting in context is where the magic happens – something Ben and Jerry’s execute brilliantly. with purpose as a consistent lens that every piece of content is seen through, yet prioritising Instagram for visual storytelling, Twitter for cultural commentary and TikTok for bringing their community into the creative process.

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating your ‘why’, but there’s no doubt social is fit for purpose.

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