Stop mistaking purpose for differentiation

If this year’s Cannes Lions festival is anything to go by then brand purpose is still high on the agenda. Marketers, however, would be better off focusing on something less utopian – differentiation.

brand purpose

The recent Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity felt at times to be a mix of denial and guilt. There was little talk of some of the seismic challenges facing those in the marketing ecosystem – take your pick from a looming recruitment challenge, questions over trust and a crisis of confidence over marketing’s effectiveness – but plenty of discussion about needing to make a difference.

READ MORE: Marketing’s looming crisis – Why the industry must work harder to attract the next generation

It might have had something to do with the vast quantity of rosé being drank on yachts, in villas and on hotel terraces, but brand purpose was a topic returned to up and down Cannes’ Croisette promenade throughout the week. There are many very clever people who have wholly accepted that you have no hope of survival unless you can demonstrate that you are playing a positive role in people’s lives, their communities and in the world at large.

Brand purpose, it seems, is a conversation far from finished. It’s also one that remains deeply polarising. In one corner you have those, many of whom were in Cannes, who believe brand purpose is not only a societal imperative, it is a business necessity; that you are in dereliction of duty if you don’t have an authentic reason to exist. In the other are those who strongly argue that brand purpose is an example of vacuous overreaching by marketers and a massive distraction to the job of generating growth.

So entrenched are the yea- and naysayers that it has been difficult to imagine middle ground. I facilitated a discussion hosted by Kantar while in Cannes. The session sprang from a piece of work it has done around brand growth. In a wide-ranging study it is argued that success comes from a variety of factors.

Most conversations around purpose tend to focus on the need for corporate citizenship. Yet challenge most people to define purpose and what you get is a definition close to differentiation.

Chief among them is attracting new buyers and retaining new ones; deciding which one takes priority depends on category and size.

Elsewhere, while accepting the importance of mental and physical availability – two key tenets of Professor Byron Sharp’s growth framework – Kantar diverges from his book How Brands Grow to stress the importance of brands being “meaningfully different” and, as a by-product perhaps, “liked”.

Leaving aside arguments about whether brands can ever be liked and indeed what it even means to be liked, the concept of ‘meaningful differentiation’ is worth pausing on. ‘Meaningful’ is defined by Kantar as a brand consumers feel an affinity with, or that meets their needs. ‘Different’ means a brand that feels different to customers.

This should not be read as a call to jump headlong into the search for brand love, nor an excuse to find your place in a world of expectant millennials. If it’s a call for anything it’s for something far less utopian – good old fashioned differentiation through positioning.

Most conversations around purpose tend to focus on the need for corporate citizenship. Yet challenge most people to define purpose and what you get is a definition close to differentiation. The word itself is the distraction: misappropriation, leading to costly and arguably pointless action.

It’s crazy we have to restate what there was never any need to change. If you can credibly differentiate because of practices that add value to society, fine; otherwise find another point of difference that sets you apart and makes you appreciated – don’t go searching for one.

The debate around purpose is also one of the many big issues we will be tackling on the Marketing Week Strategy Stage at the Festival of Marketing in October. New for 2018, it will bring together some of the biggest names in marketing to tackle some of the profession’s greatest strategic challenges. Join us in October to continue the debate.

Festival of Marketing is back at Tobacco Dock in London on 10 and 11 October. For more information and to buy tickets visit