Red Thread

brand purpose and sponsorship

Whatever happened to vision? It used to be a fundamental part of how businesses described themselves. I grew up with it…. Nowadays though, business vision is really hard to find. It’s been well and truly eclipsed by purpose. How a CEO responds to the ‘purpose’ question is currently one of the acid tests of leadership quality.

From the abundance of ‘purpose’ now visible, it would appear that the goal of ‘increasing shareholder value’ is no longer (sufficiently) defensible, and that the Zeitgeist is obliging businesses to embrace a more holistic, and more relativist view of their own existence. By relativist, I mean simply recognising their interdependence with the society and environment which surrounds them.

Definitions of brand fall out of date almost as soon as they’re codified – because brand is simply the name we give to our changing relationship with the commercial entities around us. Are the CEOs of major global organisations such as Unilever responding to a shift in public values and what we expect from a brand? Are they simply responding as human beings to those same changes?  The Damascene Conversion of Interface’s Ray Anderson is well recorded; and PwC’s Ian Powell is widely quoted as seeing the future of women in work through the eyes of his daughters. Even Richard Branson, whose early entrepreneurial existence was hardly characterised by a triple bottom line, is waxing messianic in later life. Or are they caught up in a C suite groupthink, the likes of which we experience with each fresh corporate scandal? Only time won’t tell because, like sponsorship, there are just too many variables.

Psychology helps us of course. There is plentiful evidence to indicate that people respond well to a sense of individual and of shared purpose. Viktor Frankl’s short but powerful account of life in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning, relates how only meaning and purpose made survival possible. A sense of purpose, as much as a sense of attachment or sense of self,  or a need for responsiveness, is a ‘human given‘ – a sina qua non of existence.

For all that it feels like a trend for Millennials, brand purpose has to be a good thing. The whole exercise of looking at purpose is healthy. It helps organisations look beyond the usual horizons of business as usual, and re-examine their customer relationships, with all the opportunity that brings to tap into the creativity, innovation and reinvention, writ large or small, that offers. Carol Cone, founder of the world’s most ‘purposeful’ brand agency, Cone LLC (and now at Edelman Business + Social) summarises nicely: it enables meaningful engagement with all an organization’s stakeholders, from employees to consumers to communities (see: Starbucks, Chipotle, PNC Bank); it drives growth, demonstrated by Jim Stengel in his book GROW; it inspires innovation, compellingly articulated by Michael Porter. ‘It transforms (B2B) sales conversations from price-based ‘beat up the vendor’ sessions to high-level strategy partner discussions. It turns senior managers into industry thought leaders.’ I’m not so sure about the intention behind this description, Sense Worldwide, but you land the point.

The debate about the commercial value of brand purpose is just a replay of the tired argument around the value of CSR. Writ larger of course, because purpose in this context is de facto integrated systemically. Like sustainability for smarter businesses, it has evolved from a separate, into a distributed function.

We have an opinion of course. It’s easy to get distracted by the rules of engagement of CSR: but CSR is sponsorship. We’ve alluded to the twin-like nature of the two in earlier Threads. They both play out in the real world, on the brand – audience relationship, they both live or die by the brand’s ability to add its own unique value. They both offer the opportunity to create proof-points for a brand’s values. Purpose, CSR or sponsorship without proof-points are just more rhetoric. They each require businesses to be emotionally intelligent enough to understand the proof-points which have the broadest relevance for its key audiences.

Our sense of purpose here at Redmandarin… is plural, not singular. As mistrustful as we are of the seductive soundbite… To push the boundaries, to add real value to our clients, to stand for something better within our sector and, if pushed, to help organisations deepen their understanding of their relationship with customers and employees alike.