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The dangers of brand purpose

One of the most popular frameworks on this website is the bull’s-eye for brand positioning. It’s a great framework because it enables us to pinpoint the essence of a brand – that single thing that it stands for. It does this with helpful questions that surround the bull’s-eye. For example, “how does the brand make customers feel?”, “what is the brand's personality?”, “what is its core proposition?” and “how can we substantiate this?”. Once we’ve answered these questions it points to what the brand stands for. There is still plenty of cogitation required and I’ve known people agonise for weeks as they attempt to assess the brand purpose.

The reason why the brand purpose or brand essence is important is because it guides us in the development of the brand promotion and positioning. When we have decided on the brand purpose, everything we do and say about the brand should communicate that very essence. This means the words and images used in advertising and the colour and style of the packaging should all support this central brand position. All this can seem a bit airy fairy to non-marketing people. In truth, they may have a point if the brand purpose becomes so controlling it stifles growth.

I mention this because Unilever’s management is being criticised right now for losing sight of the growth trajectory of one of its key products – Hellmann’s mayonnaise. A guy called Terry Smith is a major investor in Unilever through his company, Fundsmith. He is annoyed because his investment in Unilever lags way behind that of many of the other stocks he holds. Smith says “a company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot”. He thinks that there is too much navel gazing going on and not enough aggressive marketing. We can’t be certain exactly how Unilever has defined the brand essence of Hellmann’s mayonnaise but according to Terry Smith it has lost the plot by publicly displaying its sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals.

People like Terry Smith are being offered lots of opportunities for taking a swipe at companies that position their brands as meeting environmental, social and governance standards (ESG). BP is busy repositioning itself as environmentally friendly as indeed are most of the large oil companies. SSE, the Scottish energy group is busy as a peacock displaying its ESG credentials to attract international finance. Almost all public companies now feel they have to position their brands as environmentally responsible.

Simon Sinek, the American marketing guru who wrote the book “Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action”, promoted the idea that businesses operate within a golden circle. On the outside of the circle is a description of what the company does. The inside circle describes how the company does it. Crucially, it is the centre of the circle which he believes is most important because it answers the question why a company does something – in other words it gives a brand a purpose. Sinek believes that successful companies can readily answer why they do what they do. This purpose attracts customers and energises staff who feel that they are doing a worthwhile job producing the mayonnaise or whatever.

This is all well and good in a charity or a company that is producing goods and services for the obvious benefit of customers. However, for many businesses, the manufacture of its products is simply to satisfy a demand. This is Terry Smith's point. As an investor in Unilever he doesn't want the management of that company to spend too much time pondering the purpose of Hellmann's mayonnaise instead of making more money. It is great if a product or service meets an evangelical need but if you are producing steel widgets or egg mayonnaise, you shouldn't push the brand purpose thing too far.

This debate takes me to an important point. Just because a framework exists doesn’t mean that it should become an obsession with managers. Frameworks are simply tools that help us solve problems or help us gain a competitive advantage. Unilever managers take note.


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