“Purpose can exist without an explicit position that reflects it to the market.”
Mark Ritson

There’s been a bit of a fixation lately on whether brands should focus on positioning around their purpose or not. Look no further than Fundsmith LLP and Unilever this week, questioning the attention given to the ‘why’ behind branded mayonnaise.

But I think this question (should we or shouldn’t we explicitly position around purpose) misses a wider fundamental branding/commercial point.

What is your founding story?

The majority of successful brands and businesses were created on the back of the drive/passion of the founding team in building something they truly believed in. Not all, but most. This initial motivation to build a brand is perhaps even more compelling if it’s grounded in a tension that the founder personally identified with and felt sufficiently compelled to do something about.

Does this purpose or reason for being have to be explicit? I don’t think so. It should help drive culture, hiring, decision making, partnerships and future strategy but it doesn’t have to be in your face. It should be apparent, but (for most brands) not overtly communicated.

How the story started in the first place is as important as anything, because this is fixed. The way that functional and emotional benefits are communicated to tell that story matter but I believe people (consumers) care about the why behind a brand, rooted in their gut feelings.

They might not realise it, or be able to articulate it, but it plays a role in how they feel and ultimately what they buy. It’s one of the reasons i’m such a fan of projective and implicit research, because it teases this below the surface stuff out.

Retrofit purpose later on and risk a backlash around authenticity, because people see through it or the contrived nature of it. It has to feel real.

Whenever tired brands lose their way/consider a rebrand, it’s often a case of going back to the original purpose/intention of the founders when they created it in the first place. Why? Because motivation (why we do what we do) and purpose matter to a lot of people in buying situations, it’s just not, as Mark Ritson points out, always necessary to be explicit and in-your-face about it. The art is in the nuance.

Mat Sloan

Head, Brand:lab