Staying true to your brand's purpose

While a cause may be close to your heart, does it make sense for your brand to get behind it? How do you align your brand’s purpose with your campaigns and your actions?


by Marty Drill30 May 2018

I turned to Liam and said “I want to come out of the closet”. He said “Well about time!” “No Liam, you jumped in a little early,” I said. “I want to come out of the closet as a company that supports marriage equality. I want to take a stand and shout it from the rooftops that everyone should be able to get married, but I am scared of upsetting people.”

I expected the response to be ‘Who cares what people think?’ However his response surprised me: “The debate can polarise people and could really impact some of our clients and possibly some staff who may be religious. Take the stand internally so the team knows that we are not silent on our values.” 

The purpose-driven brand

On 7 December 2017, Australia became the 26th country to legally recognise same-sex marriage. It was momentous for so many people. The mood in our office that day was jubilant. The champagne flowed freely and we marked the occasion with an enormous rainbow cake. I made a heartfelt speech about how it was a victory for all of Australia.
But something didn’t feel quite right.

Four months later I found myself sitting in a presentation on purpose-driven brands at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. I was listening to Todd Kaplan, the Marketing Manager of Pepsi, and AJ Hassan, the Head of Strategy at R/GA Chicago (a big, impressive agency). Suddenly, it struck me. I had sold out. 

Three elements of a purpose-driven brand

Most companies are primarily driven by a desire to be the best at something – to provide the best product, or the best service, or the most secure future. Then there are those that are driven by a purpose beyond their product. This purpose drives the business decisions, marketing strategy and campaigns. Organisations that take actions consistent with a well-defined brand purpose can have a distinct advantage over those that don’t because today’s consumers are looking for more than product benefits. They want to be able to identify with a brand’s purpose and what it stands for. Increasingly, they reward or punish brands that are ‘not doing the right thing’. At the very least, aligning with a deeper purpose provides the brand something to share, rather than just product features to sell. 

So how do you decide what to align your brand with? Start with reviewing your brand’s purpose. What are the key areas you would like to influence? Then look at the causes, cultural landscape and the state of the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take up an environmental or social issue, but you do need to look for a purpose that is broader than simply making money. 

Todd and AJ outlined the three categories of how purpose-driven brands can be motivated and relevant. They can exist in isolation but must be aligned with your purpose, or you run the risk of it backfiring:

Cause – Situations/moments that help meet someone’s need 
Example: Metricon has supported YWCA Victoria to develop housing for disadvantaged women.  

Cultural – Situations/moments that make a statement
Example: Some AFL Clubs have decided to cut ties with gambling sponsors in order to separate sport from gambling. 

Core – More than a moment, a consistent mode of behaviour
Example: Toilet paper company “Who Gives a Crap” positions its brand in line with building toilets for those in need. While it provides an enormous 50 percent of its profits to this endeavour, many people do not realise that it is a for-profit company. 

This doesn’t mean that your brand cannot support a cause that is beyond your brand purpose. If you want to support girls in Africa to go to school, then you should! 

Let’s examine each of these in more detail by looking at case studies that were raised at SXSW.

1. Involving your brand in a cause 

AJ and Todd outlined a case study where Whirpool identified that high-risk students were not coming to school because they did not have clean clothes. This drastically affected attendance and the confidence of these kids. Whirlpool got behind the cause and created a campaign called ‘Care Counts’, providing washers and dryers to selected schools which allowed clothes to be washed. The result was 86 percent of these high-risk students increased their attendance during the program. 

The campaign was not specifically aligned with Whirlpool’s purpose (it doesn’t exist to ensure students go to school), but it worked because of the resources it had available to meet a need at that moment. 

2. Making your brand relevant in a cultural setting

In response to Hurricane Harvey in the U.S. (Aug 2017), Budweiser stopped beer production and commenced the production of bottled and canned water. While the water was needed, it was actually a risky move for any beer company as stopping production could have a backlash. Budweiser decided that it had a responsibility to make a statement that it was part of the community and it had the resources and the distribution channels to ensure people had access to water in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. In Australia, Frantelle Water also provided thousands of bottles of water in response to the Victorian bushfires in 2009 and teamed up with the Red Cross to raise funds for people who had lost all their worldly possessions.  

3. Getting to the core

AJ and Todd presented a case study on the #LikeAGirl campaign, a campaign that I absolutely loved. I didn’t know that the brand behind it was a sanitary pad company called Always. I had never seen the ads (shown in America), only the impact of the hashtag. Its purpose was to support women’s confidence (that’s the why). It was talking about it in a functional way, what the product could do (how and what). The brand Always was a leader in the category, though it had never really talked about its support for women in a way that went beyond the product. 

It did research and found what is seemingly obvious, that girls’ confidence drops through puberty. The brand decided it wanted to change this, which is a big ask. It wanted a communication that delivers on confidence rather than just selling more pads. It filmed a range of people asking them to run like a girl or throw like a girl. The responses were largely insulting to girls, though fairly consistent with the perception of community attitudes. It then asked young girls to do the same, and the responses were powerful girls being themselves – a complete contrast to the prevailing societal view of girls. Watch the video below to see the process they went through.


Always was a long-standing American brand that was supporting women, but its functional approach had been TV ads where it poured blue water on sanitary pads. This campaign allowed it to communicate what it stands for. The campaign went viral and started to change the conversation about doing things #LikeAGirl. It is one of the most impactful campaigns I have ever seen. I have no data on whether it sold more product, but it changed attitudes and any brand that can do that is likely to succeed. If people really do buy why you do what you do, then I suggest that women who were positively impacted would buy this brand and many would stay loyal to it.

Looking for local inspiration

Coming back to the issue of marriage equality, one home-grown example of a purpose-driven brand that stands out for me is Qantas. While I applauded its courage to take a stand on marriage equality – especially in the face of significant opposition and risk – I couldn’t help but wonder how the airline was able to align its stand with its brand purpose, and to justify it to shareholders. 

I decided to search for the company’s purpose. I trawled through dozens of pages and struggled to find it. I was looking for it to be explicitly stated. In its history Qantas talks about how the black Queensland soil turned into thick mud which would isolate communities for months at a time. It was clear to me, Qantas’ brand purpose is to connect people. While it sounds like the mission statement of a 90s phone company, I could see it in everything that the company does. Its safety standard, its ads, its routes and its support of communities throughout Australia, especially our indigenous communities. 

On the surface you could say that Qantas backed marriage equality because of its CEO and many of its staff who identify as LGBTQI (statistically over 10%). Look a little deeper and you can see that it makes sense for it to make this stand because it is actually who it is and what it is about, connecting people. I’d go further and say that if Qantas’ brand at its core (more than a moment, a consistent mode of behaviour) is the Spirit of Australia, then it was compelled to be a leader in the campaign. The research showed that the majority of Australians wanted equality. While Qantas risked alienating some of its older customers and one of its major customers (and regulator), the Government, if it did not take a stand then it would have sold out on what it stands for.

Qantas didn’t single-handedly ensure marriage equality was upheld in Australia. It was a concerted effort by many people, groups, politicians, companies and, most importantly, the LGBTQI community. But, like many companies, Qantas took a public stand, and I wish I did too.

Marriage equality was a cultural moment where my company could have made a stand. It was in line with our brand purpose: to be the digital agency of choice for awesome people and awesome clients. 'Awesome people' are kind, fair and inclusive towards all genders, races and orientations... While it may seem a stretch that we take a stand on marriage equality, if we want to be the agency of choice, then it becomes natural for us to take a stand. 

There is an argument that the only way you can be successful is to have a purpose-driven brand, as it makes you relatable, and provides you with a consistent ‘compass’ against which to gauge all value-based decisions in your business.

So the questions are: What is the purpose of your brand? Why do you exist? Why do people buy from you? The answers can take a while to find, but the process is completely worth it. If you are guided by your core purpose in all that you do, the decision to make a stand that is in line with that purpose may still be polarising, but it will be consistent with who you are as a brand. And frankly, in my opinion, that is the most important thing. So from this day forward, I say ‘Yes!’ to having a purpose-driven brand. I make a pledge that my brand will not hide its true colours. It’s time to hoist up the rainbow flag!

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