Brand purpose is no good if it doesn’t make money

Andy Last, Co-Founder of MullenLowe salt on why brands can’t afford to ignore their relationships with the wider world, or their commercial bottom line either.

Andy Last

Co-Founder MullenLowe salt


There’s so much noise about the ‘P’ word that it’s easy to get bogged down in arguments about whether a brand’s purpose should be to make money or save the world. Should we be targeting consumers or activists? Should we be increasing awareness or reducing emissions? Should we be promoting on price or pressure groups? Asked as binary questions, it’s easy to see why any brand, and particularly any with limited budgets, would turn away from the purpose debate, focus on the basics and just keep on keeping on.

But the questions are wrong. It’s not a zero-sum game and you don’t have to choose between making money and making a difference.

In a world where investors insist on companies having a clear purpose, governments demand sustainability reports, employees ask for meaning at work and consumers want to feel OK about what they buy, no brand can afford to ignore its relationship with the wider world. But in the same world, where investors insist on companies making a return, governments demand taxes, employees ask to get paid, and consumers want brands at a good price, no brand can afford to ignore commercials either.

Mindless capitalism is no longer an option, but nor is commercial naivety.

Andy Last

New pressures

A brand’s purpose is why it exists and what the world would really miss if it no longer did. Brand owners have always had to consider why their brand exists so that they can innovate and market according to the role it plays in people’s lives. What’s changed are the new pressures that force brands to consider their wider role in the world. The new pressures from generations who have grown up as environmentalists, with the limits of our planet part of their everyday reality. The new pressures from generations growing up digitally connected, where the weakest links in any brand’s value chain, from sweat shops to plastic pollution, can be seen and shared to put any brand at risk of cancel culture. And the new pressures from regulators and investors forcing the companies that own brands to come to the purpose party whether they want to or not.

A brand owner that doesn’t pay attention to the fact that the government is setting carbon neutrality targets and promising a green recovery is not thinking strategically. A brand owner that doesn’t realise that investors are demanding sustainability reporting and assessing the likely growth of their company according to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria, is sleeping at the wheel.

How do ESG criteria translate into pressure on brands? If your brand isn’t actively working on how it can reduce the environmental impact of how it is produced, packaged and recycled, it isn’t helping your company with its investors. If your brand isn’t doing more for the communities it affects and isn’t conscious of diversity in its marketing, then you’re not helping your company hit its ‘S’ targets. Just ask your salesforce how many questions they are now asked by your retail customers about how you are helping them with their own sustainability targets.

Take purpose seriously

But while a brand purpose is no longer fit for purpose if it doesn’t show how the brand can better manage its relationship with the wider world, so a brand purpose is as good as useless if it doesn’t guide the brand’s commercial success. You cannot build a sustainable brand without a purpose that combines the two. 

The good news is any brand can afford to find a purpose that sets a course for profitable, sustainable growth. It doesn’t take huge budgets or multiple priorities, but it does mean taking purpose seriously and not falling for the superficial promise of plastic purpose. Woke washing simply won’t wash. Over the last 20 years we’ve helped hundreds of brands find their purpose and you do find your purpose; you don’t have it created for you for a smart campaign. We’ve seen what works, we’ve seen how brands can knit commercial priorities, social opportunities and environmental responsibilities together, and we’ve seen sustainable brands outperform the market.

Our practical processes ensure every brand can not only find its purpose, but make sure their purpose works to deliver on the bottom line. We measure success against our ASCEND model, which assesses the six essential characteristics of brand purpose:

Aligns to the corporate strategy

Strong link to the product

Clear commercial interest

Encourages others to join in

Narrative for the brand story

Drives employee engagement

Mindless capitalism is no longer an option, but nor is commercial naivety. 

Guest Author

Andy Last

Co-Founder MullenLowe salt


Andy co-founded salt in 2000 and has led the development of MullenLowe salt’s Social Purpose model to create sustainable, progressive campaigns for brands and businesses. He advises organisations on how they can use social issues to drive growth, and how communications can effect change to bring about better business results and social progress. Andy has worked since 2006 on Lifebuoy soap’s award-winning social mission, described as the ‘best social program ever’ by David Aaker, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and has advised organisations including Unilever, Diageo, Mondelez, PepsiCo and Kimberly-Clark over the last 20 years. He is a regular speaker on the role of business in society, at conferences in Europe, America, Asia and Africa and as a visiting lecturer, including for Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership and the Rotterdam Business School, and is a member of the Medinge Group, the Brands with a Conscience Think Tank. A second edition of his book, ‘Business on a Mission: How to Build a Sustainable Brand’, will be published by Routledge in 2021.

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