Lessons in Brand Purpose: What Does Your Brand Stand For?

I used to have a mentor whose guiding philosophy was ‘Give a shit.’ He used the phrase so frequently that part of me still wonders if the holy slogan is secretly tattooed over his heart. This philosophy stemmed from a desire to only work with those who are truly passionate about their craft. He believed that to be absolutely invested, every company, every brand and every person he worked with must plant a stake in the ground and say, ‘This is what I stand for.’ This fundamental idea also sets the foundation of brand strategy, and to this day I apply the ‘give a shit’ test to everything, from the brands I work with to the people I meet.

When it goes wrong, it goes virally wrong

Pepsi’s recently pulled ad featuring Kendall Jenner is a perfect example of failing the test. Enough articles have already been written criticizing the tone deaf nature of the ad. But has anyone asked: What’s the difference between brand messaging that’s denounced and brand messaging that’s commended?

Pepsi’s message of equality and empowerment left many of us scratching our heads, wondering what guided them in this seemingly arbitrary direction. In the absence of being able to speak to the brand owner we turned to the next best alternative – the brand purpose. Surely the north star can offer some clues to the alignment of the message with its meaning.

According to Pepsico, its purpose is to deliver top-tier financial performance over the long term by integrating sustainability into our business strategy. Together with our business partners and leading organizations committed to positive change, we are determined to make our vision a reality.

Notice anything missing there? How about the fact that at no point in Pepsi’s brand purpose does it mention its customers, communities, or the world at large. It was in this moment that I began to feel sympathy for the brand managers, copywriters and creatives who produced the infamous ad – the backlash wasn’t their fault. Pepsico’s archaic purpose statement reads like meaningless corporate jargon designed to win over shareholders, and leaves the organization completely devoid of a true north star. Without an authentic guiding principal, marketers are left grasping at straws, searching for outside-in source of inspiration.

It’s worth pointing out that Pepsico, as the ‘corporate mothership,’ has to represent many brands under its domain (Frito-Lay, Quaker, Tropicana, Gatorade). But when the name of your main brand is the same as the mothership, the two are inextricably tied. Most importantly, consumers took note of the snafu. According to Netbase data, in the week following the ad’s release, Pepsi’s social engagement skyrocketed (or plummeted depending on your perspective), with over 2.7 million posts (up 2,816 percent from usual) and a net sentiment of -33 percent (down 54 percent).

Authenticity is unmistakeable

As a contrast we also studied Heineken, which was widely praised for its recent ‘Worlds Apart’ spot. Heineken joins the political conversation broaching the topics of climate change, gender identity and gender equality in a reality TV-inspired piece that’s a cross between the television shows Big Brother and Wife Swap. Heineken masterfully paints the conflict, confusion and ultimately, the connections that come together to create the human experience highlighting that the way we’ll resolve our differences is through dialogue, not living in echo chambers.

Digging into its brand purpose, Heineken lists three fundamental values: Enjoyment, Respect and Passion. It then explores these values further: We have respect for individuals, society and the environment. Regardless of your level of skepticism behind its intentions, Heineken explicitly demonstrates in its purpose that it gives a shit about people.

Heineken has made a fundamental choice to be an advocate. By creating its message from a place that aligns with its brand at the deepest level, the resulting ad feels simply authentic. The connection is illustrated by the positive sentiment that has been pouring into (pun intended) Heineken. In the week after the ad aired, Netbase data shows that Heineken social posts went up 271 percent with a net sentiment of 69 percent. Although Heineken’s ad didn’t make nearly the splash that Pepsi’s did, the increased chatter was overwhelmingly positive.

Oh, and note that Heineken, like Pepsi, is both the corporate entity and the flagship brand (Heineken owns 250 brands including Sol, Amstel, Tecate, and Red Stripe).

Does your organization pass the ‘give a shit’ test?

Many people think that branding is merely about crafting catchy slogans and designing pretty logos. The truth is, if your brand is not rooted in the fundamental truths and strategy of the organization, it will fail. This is why building a brand that is authentic to the company is paramount. All too often marketers ask the question ‘How do we communicate what people want to hear?’ Before any brand can consider a new campaign or any external messaging, however, its brand leader (who should, ultimately, be the CEO) must take a step back and ask ‘Have we clarified what we stand for?’

But capturing and distilling that singular essence can be tricky. One method for homing in on what is most authentic about your brand is to examine your company at key landmark events, the purest of which is often its inception. For almost every organization, there is a defining point of clarity and inspiration – the inciting moment.

Getting to its essence can be pretty simple. What was the inciting moment that lit the spark for a founder to start the company? The key is to take this unadulterated moment, understand what it means for the organization’s brand identity, and allow it to guide the organization’s purpose. Small inciting moments have guided some of the largest brands throughout history – from Edison’s pursuit of harnessing electricity, thus leading to the inception of GE, to MIT student Drew Houston’s need of a more convenient way to share digital files, inspiring DropBox.

Nobody likes the person who tries to tell you about saving the environment while driving a Hummer. The same rules apply to brands. Without addressing the core issue of brand purpose, any brand will always be liable to suffer a similar outcome to Pepsi’s. Heineken shows us what can happen when purpose is done right. Action without authenticity is garbage.

Rob Troller is a Strategy Analyst at Monigle. Continue the conversation about creating an authentic brand with Monigle’s brand experts by contacting us at connect@monigle.com.