I want to ask CMOs about their brand purpose writing.
Is it good enough?
This came out of a keynote speech I was asked to give by the Financial Services Forum in London on 16th June 2022.
Along with the panel, I was asked whether I thought Purpose contributed to a brand’s profitability.
My thoughts in brief:
I am sceptical about how brands are using Purpose.
Part of that scepticism comes from a moral question: are you exploiting your colleagues’ and consumers’ good nature by duping them into thinking there’s a moral basis for what you do?
There’s another issue here, though.
I think I’m sceptical of the writing used for brand purpose.
Most brand purpose writing is formulaic.
Each piece of brand purpose writing seems to be merely a rearrangement of a limited set of words (partnership, planet, penguins).
It’s like no one talked to their tone of voice agency.
And this is a fundamental problem, not just one of appearance.
If you’re trying to make a moral case for your business, you have a moral obligation to make that Purpose clear and singular.
Most brands are failing to do that.
My keynote speech is below.
I thank the financial services forum
for bringing us together
to talk about
the contribution of
purpose to profitability
for asset managers,
I have a confession…
When it comes to purpose in business,
That’s not the confession…
My confession is, I don’t know whether I’m sceptical of purpose because it’s
the costume jewellery equivalent of real brand strategy…
Looking nice but failing to do the very thing it’s meant to…
Make you attractive by creating something uniquely differentiating
…Or am I sceptical of purpose
Because of the way chief marketing officers generally describe their purpose, doing it in such a way that instead of differentiating their business, they’re all instead becoming increasingly… undifferentiated…
I hope that by the end of today’s panel session,
will have helped me make up my mind whether purpose is a fad or if the problem is just the way marketing leaders are describing it.
Let me explain…
What kind of a heart
Do you have
If you’re going to be sceptical about something that’s good for not just your profits,
But your people and the penguins?
Perhaps a heart hardened by creating successful and award-winning advertising for British Airways, the times, the Conservative Party…
As well as
Virgin Atlantic, the Guardian and the Labour party.
In those years, you know in your heart that a brand strategy which is the same as everyone else’s, or which is just window dressing, might make people aware of you…
But They never engage with you.
They’re certainly never loyal.
And if your positioning is following the same trend as your competitors, it’s doing nothing to differentiate you.
Real brand strategy is about
differentiating your business
By finding something that is both meaningful to your audience and Uniquely true of your particular business.
So my hard heart’s instant reaction to whether purpose can be part of your brand is……it might be meaningful to your audience, but it’s not uniquely true of your business.
so, you could say, ‘purpose’ isn’t a differentiating brand strategy, it’s just the latest management idea.
It’s a response to the failure of “vision and values”?
Which were themselves a response to the failure of ‘stakeholder value’…?
Which if you want to go back a bit further, was just a response to the idea that businesses should be run by professional managers, rather than the owner-magnates?
My head’s more considered reaction is that we know today isn’t yesterday.
We know it’s now harder to attract and retain younger employees who want more from their work than a salary
(though it’s odd how often they’ll move for a higher one!)
Perhaps the panel will tell me that purpose is genuinely, uniquely, effective in your employee brand at attracting candidates?
And we know that it’s always hard to attract investment, so does purpose make investors interested in you?
Again, I hope the panel will tell us.
But let’s also not forget how many investors pour into unscrupulous ventures which are instead making tons of money.
We know that our businesses and ideas get copied all the time,
So now, our ‘why’ differentiates us… and perhaps that’s what purpose does…
I look forward to the panel’s views on why purpose is a valuable part of the brand.
So, if purpose is a valuable part of brand strategy, perhaps what’s making me feel sceptical is the way that chief marketing officers of financial institutions choose to communicate it.
Is the language used to describe purpose as part of a brand actually undermining it’s role as a differentiating brand strategy and reducing the brand’s profitability?
Why focus on language?
Because language is the stuff of thought.
And formulaic language suggests formulaic thinking.
And formulaic brand language and formulaic brand thinking don’t just fail to win customers.
It fails to win you employees.
Which is the entire purpose of purpose.
Formulaic language and formulaic thinking don’t deepen loyalty.
And they don’t position your company or de-position your rivals.
To help us look at whether there is formulaic language and formulaic thinking, we’re going to need a framework.
After a decade of advising world-leading companies on their language, from alphabet’s moonshot factory in silicon valley to data science start-ups that are reaching their unicorn valuation…
I’m confident this framework will help us.
All brand language works on 3 levels
At the 10,000 ft level, you express your world view…the world you’re trying to create.
At 1,000 ft, you amplify your unique brand personality with the tonal values of your language.
And down at ground level, you reinforce those other 2 levels by your choice of particular words and a few other things.
And to see how financial marketing officers are doing, let’s play….
Purpose buzzword bingo!
[Here, I handed out bingo cards with keywords and phrases from many different asset managers’ Purpose statements.
We played Purpose buzzword bingo for a few minutes as the same tired phrases and words appeared and re-appeared.]
Whether purpose is a valuable part of your brand, the panel will help us understand now.
But what we can see is that there’s a lot of formulaic language being used in purpose, which is leading to formulaic thinking.
Too often, the undifferentiated nature of the brand language is undermining the very thing that purpose was designed to do … which is differentiate your brand.
When we sound the same as everyone else, we do the same as everyone else.
I look forward to the panel’s views helping me make my mind up.