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How defining a brand purpose can accelerate business results

by Canto  |  May 6, 2022

6 min. read
Advertisement featuring a hamburger with toppings falling into place.

What can a jar of mayo teach companies about the connection between establishing a brand purpose and making a profit?

It turns out that if you want to really get under the lid (sorry) of modern marketing and business, mayo is pretty much the main dish and everything else is … well, the dressing. That’s because a debate about Hellmann’s Mayonnaise in January this year raised the question of whether brand purpose has a role to play — not as a question of degrees, but if talking about purpose is relevant to business at all. Up to that point, most of the analysis about purpose focused on campaigns or organizations that were “doing it right” and “doing it wrong.” More on that question in a moment. But here was Terry Smith, respected founder of Fundsmith Equity Fund, saying that the pursuit of brand purpose by Hellmann’s parent company Unilever was “ludicrous” and undermining financial results. Smith wrote in a letter to investors in January 2022:

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913, so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).”

Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Digital Officer Conny Braams replied in an interview the following month that sales of Hellmann’s and another of the company’s purpose-led brands, Dove, were up 11% and 8% respectively in 2021. Braams described purpose as “one of the levers for success” at Unilever, adding:

“But it is not a replacement for a good product and that’s where it sometimes goes wrong. Brands are chosen for their value and values. It starts with value and you need fantastic products – products that are delivering superiority and quality against the best price. And if you deliver that, then values come on top of it as an accelerator.”

Marketing collateral featuring brand colors from a Canto style guide.

Why does the mayo debate matter?

The mayo debate reveals what really matters when it comes to brand purpose. In all the commentary about Smith’s investor letter, very few analysts actually looked at Hellmann’s purpose-driven activity. If you take the time and trouble to take a look, you’ll find a brand talking to consumers about sustainably-sourced ingredients. Hellmann’s explains the work it does to source eggs from farms with cage-free hens and its ongoing work with farmers and agricultural suppliers to improve the sustainability of land use in the supply of raw ingredients in products.

According to Hellmann’s: “Let’s make good food available to all, and make sure it doesn’t cost the Earth. And let’s have a real, honest, grown-up conversation about what ‘good food’ truly means.” So sure, it’s about salads and sandwiches … if you want to think about the end-use of the product instead of talking about what 21st-century consumers might care about, as Unilever is trying to do. And that’s the difference in perspective. Brand purpose isn’t about describing a product. It holds up a mirror to consumers’ concerns relevant to the specific product category.

Authenticity and relevance

The brands that “get it right” understand that connection between purpose and product. It’s why the UK-based coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger donates all unsold food at the end of the day from its stores to homeless shelters and charities — reducing food waste.

It’s why Nike’s 2018 “Dream Crazy” campaign with Colin Kaepernick was hailed a success, winning a creative Emmy in 2019, despite a boycott of the brand by some. The campaign with Kaepernick, the former NFL star who started to kneel for the pre-game national anthem in protest at racial injustice, evoked the idea: “Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” It’s consistent with the messaging about sport, passion and belief in Nike’s mission: “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Colin Kaepernick Nike ad.

But it’s why Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner stepping out of the crowd to hand a soda can to a police officer was pulled by the brand after widespread criticism for trivializing civil rights protests. Just what was the authentic connection between purpose and product? If there’s one question a CMO should ask about purpose, it’s what is our relevance to this issue?

Back to the roots

This brings us back to Simon Sinek’s 2009 TEDx Talk (one of the all-time most-watched) and book Start With Why, when he explained the idea of the Golden Circle and the idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And 13 years later, it still holds true. Research by Razorfish and Vice Media last year found:

  • 62% of consumers of all ages say a brand’s values are important or very important to them when it comes to making purchase decisions;
  • 40% actively researching a brand’s values and practices;
  • Consumers were more likely to say brand purpose (41%) influenced their purchase decision than brand innovation (32%) and even discounts (26%).

Drill down into demographics, and the research found:

“Gen Z is 2x more likely than millennials, and 3x more likely than Gen X, to feel that brands—more so than media companies and institutions—are more likely to make the world a better place. This generation also prioritizes purpose when making purchasing decisions, with 76% stating the brands they buy stand for a greater mission/purpose.”

Thinking about purpose doesn’t just apply to consumers, it’s employees too. It’s the working philosophy that Elon Musk applied to Tesla and its mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Musk once said: “Technology leadership is determined by where the best engineers want to work. Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard. Putting in long hours for a cause is easy.”

Brand management: Where purpose and profits meet

Not every brand is on a mission to save the planet — let’s be honest, the primary mission of most is to deliver shareholder returns. But consumers want to know their money is spent with brands that, as Hellmann’s put it, don’t cost the Earth in every sense of the phrase. The challenge for brands is to share the stories of how their products and services connect to bigger questions and societal concerns. That brings us to brand strategy and management. To communicate your brand purpose to the marketplace, you need to have a consistent brand voice, brand tone, and brand messaging. To manage all of this across an organization, leaders need a “single source of truth” that maintains brand integrity. That means:

  • All brand guidelines and approved brand assets need to live in a centralized location, ensuring that global teams are adhering to the same brand standards.
  • Customizable approval workflows to ensure that only approved brand assets can be utilized in the market.
  • Version control to ensure that only the most current versions of branded content go into circulation.

Canto offers the platform to run a global, national, or local brand purpose campaign. As the mayo story shows, what works for communicating brand purpose is relevance and authenticity. But to put those principles into practice, you need to apply them with consistency.

Learn more about why top companies use Canto to manage their brands. Or book a free, personalized demo to see Canto in action.