The power of purpose is hardly a new idea. The arguments of Sinek, Stengel et al in favour of “why” being more important than “how” or “what” have become a doctrine for many contemporary brand strategies.
You would have thought then, as purpose driven brand agendas multiply at an exponential rate, that their contribution to brand equity and value would have increased too. Yet the 2015 BrandZ rankings, released this May, tell a different story. The contribution of brand ideals, corporate responsibility and reputation remain important, but if anything have declined in their ability influence choice or a brand’s ability to charge a premium.
What’s more, the rate of decline shows signs of increasing.
Does that mean we are moving back towards the emotional and rational branding strategies of the past? Or perhaps, even more alarming, is the role of branding itself becoming less important as experience trumps image in the digital age.
I’m not so sure. To return to BrandZ again, the value attributed to brands actually increased last year by 14%, and 126% over the last decade, a period which included the longest and deepest global recession since World War II. That doesn’t sound like brands are going to disappear any time soon.
What has changed though is the way in which that value has been delivered. Some of the newest and most disruptive brands have built their reputation less on standing for noble causes, more for delivering great content and utility. Step forward Uber, Alibaba and Airbnb.
Technology brands tend to dominate global brand rankings, and this is perhaps what fuels this apparent shift from purpose to utility. Google might sometimes talk about organising all the world’s information, but what we all love about it is the seamless, intuitive user experience (occasionally offset, of course, by fears over what we’re actually giving up in terms of our privacy for that experience).
But technology enabled experience is no longer just the domain of technology brands. Nike is a great example with its community driven experiences like Nike+, Perrier another through creating virtual events that epitomise sophistication.
All of these brands could articulate their brand purpose if you asked them. Many of us in the industry know them already. What seems to be happening though is that they’re spending less time telling us what that purpose is, and more on creating valuable experiences and utilities that evidence it in practice.
Perhaps then, we are beginning to see a changing of the guard, and a new type of branding emerge. One that places utility over cause, and content over communication. After nearly ten years of running one of the most successful campaigns in its history, IBM moved away from its purpose driven Smarter Planet agenda to a new platform of “Made with IBM”. In the words of Ann Rubin, IBM’s VP of Marketing, the world’s fourth most valuable brand is moving from the “why” to the “how”.
For marketers and their agencies, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. The winners will come from those who recognise it’s no longer enough to have a point of view on the world, but who create opportunities to do something about it.
Those experiences will be varied. Some we may not notice at all as they fit seamlessly into our lives, while others will be deeply individual and personalised. Many will give people a platform on which they can interact with the world around them.
So perhaps, in the future, we’ll spend a little less time crafting statements of what we believe in, and more on exactly how we’re going to make it happen.