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The era of post-purpose brands

With ‘purpose’ being one of the most over-used marketing buzzwords in recent times, it has lost all meaning. Today, the world demands ‘post-purpose’ brands that act.

by Wander Bruijel
Senior Partner, Provocation

The Era of Post Purpose Brands

Over the last decade, brands have increasingly focused on creating all-encompassing experiences that people don’t just own, but that they can share and share in, writes Wander Bruijel, Senior Provocation Partner at Born Ugly.

[Published on]

We’ve moved from a ‘need to own’ economy to a ‘need to experience’ economy. In parallel, ‘purpose’ has also become one of the most over-used marketing buzzwords of recent times. Beyond a good product and experience, brands have been pushed into signaling they were up for doing the right thing, and purposeful brands were born.

A deep loss of trust

As the world has become more integrated and more volatile, and the problems it faces more paralysing and existential, we’re moving towards a post-experience and post-purpose world, however. At the heart of this lies a deep loss of trust; a loss of trust in what is real and what is true.

We are expecting more and more from the political class to solve the world’s problems. Yet, the more we expect the less we trust them to make the difference. Today, people have more faith in business to shift the course of the planet than politicians, media or non-governmental organisations. Disenfranchised from politics, people increasingly feel they are citizens of brands, able to affect change by proxy, whilst getting something for it too.

Addressing needs beyond self-actualisation

As we accelerate irreversibly deeper into an age where our planet is at red alert, where sustaining is no longer enough, and where those we’ve devolved our power to don’t act, every step of our deep-rooted needs is under threat. Our physiological and security needs are under threat from global warming, global pandemics, and global economic anxiety. Our sense of belonging is under threat from globalisation and homogenisation of culture. Our self-esteem is under attack from visible and invisible threats in the virtual world. And our ability to become the most that we can under threat from all the above.

It paints a bleak picture. One where people seek control, agency, connection, action and optimism. To paraphrase Alan Williams in his book ‘The Values Economy’, we’ve hit a perfect storm where people have shifted towards making value-driven choices and become brand citizens. Brands have become the hopeful anchors that could lead us beyond these volatile times.

Post-purpose brands taking action

This is a precarious place for brands to be. But, as a more ‘can-do’ generation emerges and matures we are starting to see a shift towards a growing sense of optimism for the future.

For brands to succeed today and tomorrow, they need to go beyond purpose (whilst not forgetting the basics of brand). They must act based on a clear view of the change they want to see in the world. They need a vision that is rooted in its core values and a distinctive brand truth that aligns with their audiences. More importantly, this alignment must permeate through to every aspect of what the brand does: how it behaves, the products it sells, who it employs, the company it keeps, the action it takes, what it says, and the transparency with which it does so. It is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do. “A value isn’t a value unless it costs you something,” to bastardise the words of ad-man Bill Bernbach. It’s a stark reminder that when you really value something, you must be willing to pay the price for living by it.

View this simply as a corporate initiative, like CSR or ESG, and brands will barely scratch the surface of where they need to be. This is not a place of brand distinction or differentiation.

The point here is not some lofty unattainable do-good purpose. It is about taking action and about opening up. It’s not about engagement and transparency, or about being ‘authentic’. That suggests veneer rather than action. This is about intrinsic, inherent values that a brand lives by rooted in a clear view of the distinctive impact it wants to make on the world on behalf of its citizens.

Finding this ‘intrinsity’ – at risk of coining another trite marketing word – of a brand and distilling it into values that run throughout its every aspect isn’t easy. This is not the space of branding. It is the space of Brand. A space where real change happens. A place of hard work and vulnerability. A place of differentiation and distinctiveness. A place to take a long, hard look at yourself to see if you believe your own bullshit, or whether you’re the real deal. Get it right, and it’s a place where you can add tremendous value to your business and its citizens.

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