With nimble newcomers mounting challenges, established brands are trying to connect with customers on big issues that matter. Becky Willan looks at some of the perils they should avoid

Purpose has become a buzzword in marketing, brand and business management. This isn’t a passing trend. It’s about a fundamental transformation in how successful brands are created and grown. And with this transformation comes opportunities and challenges – for both established brands and disruptive newcomers.

Established brands in categories that are ripe for disruption are using purpose as a long-term strategy to help them prove they’re still relevant, distinctive and useful compared to their challenger brand rivals. In the financial services category, for example, new challenger brands are capturing consumers’ imagination for a better way to do banking. These include Atom Bank, the UK’s first digital-only bank, and more established disruptors Amazon and PayPal, which have both started offering super-quick loans.

Unable to compete on interest rates and when great customer service becomes simply standard practice, many established brands are finding new ways to connect with customers on the big issues that matter. Purpose is becoming a new brand battleground.

Barclays is improving financial literacy through its Digital Eagles scheme while Lloyds is "Helping Britain Prosper" and RBS is "Building a Sustainable Bank".

In each case, these brands are using their corporate position to influence positive change through long-term, sustainable commitments that benefit people and society. This is what we call brand purpose with substance and it’s where we believe purpose creates the most value for brands, business, customers and the world.

(credit: Taina Sohlman)

Why Tesla works
In some cases a purpose-led challenger brand can accelerate change that makes the whole category work in the interests of people, communities and the environment. Take Tesla, which is challenging the entire automotive industry to think differently about the economics of that market. Beyond this, Tesla is developing new products and services to help people live in and run more sustainable homes. These innovations will not only have a positive effect on the planet, but a lasting impact on technology and energy sectors. Critically, Tesla also innovates with the customer in mind, creating products that people love.

In FMCG, Innocent changed the entire chilled drinks category for good. The company hit competitors hard, stealing share from carbonated soft drinks; challenging established norms. But Innocent also came with a strong message, a big idea that made people feel good about the business because the brand was truly purposeful. As a result, their impact on the category forced competitors to innovate and encouraged consumers to think about their health, while enjoying a soft drink.

But of course purpose is not a prerequisite for disruptive brands. Take Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo – they are all brands that we associate with amazing disruptive propositions but are also under increasing scrutiny. They might have started out to change the world for the better, but no longer feel like “good” businesses. Where it often goes wrong for these new power brands is where the purpose principle is lost in the ruthless focus on the product and the relentless pursuit of profit. They are big, have scaled fast and seen amazing growth. The short-term interest of customers may fuel rapid growth, but it can come at the expense of people and society. For Amazon, the business now feels untouchable. However, in other categories when a more purposeful competitor enters the market with a similar idea, it provides strong competition.

Credit: Innocent Drinks


Uber vs Lyft      
This is just what’s happening in Uber’s backyard with Lyft, which differentiates itself as the more purposeful of the two in the wake of Uber’s trail of PR disasters. With Uber valued at over $60bn and Lyft a meagre $9bn, the latter is tiny but this smaller business is hurting Uber, largely because of the values and ethics core to its mission. Lyft has innovated to allow riders to tip drivers, to round up the cost of rides to the nearest dollar and give the difference to charity. Lyft’s drivers are also paid better than Uber’s.

Is it easier for challenger brands to bake strong values and purposeful practices into their business models than corporate giants? Or does it work the other way? Heritage brands often face indignant shareholders, complex operations and all of the established structure that makes transformative change difficult. However, they do have the resources and capability to deliver change at scale. Because that’s what true brand purpose is about – it needs to be actionable, measurable and scalable.

Whether you are a disruptive new brand or a heritage brand, purpose gives you a platform to create value for your business, your customers and ultimately the world around you. At Given, we believe there are three key principles for building brand purpose with substance:

Part of the mix Purpose should be considered a vital ingredient for all contemporary brands – you need to see it as a critical element of your brand, not a silver bullet

Value creation Think about purpose as a commercial opportunity, not a threat. How can your purpose help your business to grow? 

Real change Purpose must never simply be a comms strategy. Brand purpose comes to life through the tangible actions you take within the business to deliver change

Ultimately, being a good brand is not an exclusive club. Brand purpose with substance is equally attainable for brands large and small, new and established, disruptor and stalwart – and if used effectively and supported throughout the business can be a hugely effective platform for growth, powerful marketing and long-term success.

Becky Willan is managing director of Given, a brand innovation agency specialising in building purpose with substance. None of the mentioned brands is a client.