Brands Have Learned the Value of Purpose. Now They Must Actually Become Purpose-Led

Follow the examples of Airbnb and Tumblr

Airbnb is pushing the message that people 'belong anywhere.' Airbnb
Headshot of Max Lenderman

Almost four years ago at the Forbes CMO Conference in Miami, I told the audience of business and brand leaders that “purpose is the new digital.” The notion of purpose will change the commercial dynamics of brands in the same way that digital transformed (and is still transforming) the way people buy and sell stuff.

Max Lenderman

Since then, the discussion and action around brand purpose has ratcheted up. This past International Women’s Day saw an incredible outpouring of creativity from brands and their agencies alike, showing us all how much more socially aware and advocacy-centric we are becoming as a society. Indeed, there is no indication that commercial culture—brands, businesses, agencies and customers—will cease moving into more meaningful and purpose-led expressions, attributes and positioning.

In fact, it is my contention that we are on the cusp of an evolutionary leap for brands. Loosely put, we are in the midst of a shift in Maslow’s hierarchy of (brand) needs from love to esteem to self-actualization. In other words, as most brands are playing in the love part of the pyramid, there are more and more brands that are searching for esteem instead. This search is a journey for the ultimate evolutionary step—self-actualization—as a manifestation of a brand’s full potential.

In the context of this path, it’s interesting to see how some brands are purpose brands and how others are purposeful. What’s the difference? According to the dictionary, the difference—in the context of positioning, branding and advertising—is palpable.

Purpose: the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

Purposeful: having or showing determination or resolve.

Within these two definitions lies the evolution of brands into the new normal. There are a few brands today that are becoming purposeful; there are even fewer brands that are built on purpose. But all of that is changing.

Purpose brands like Toms shoes and Warby Parker can easily articulate their “why.” Many brands are against environmental pollution, but Seventh Generation’s purpose is to help people live a more natural and chemical-free life. A major retailer may sponsor the Sierra Club’s efforts against deforestation; Patagonia makes saving the environment its ultimate raison d’etre.

Some brands and their leaders are becoming more purpose-led by rediscovering and rearticulating their core values. More importantly, they are leading with action. Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani is a maverick of CSR by integrating a change in organizational wealth-sharing practices as well as being an outspoken advocate for refugees. David Karp, the founder and CEO of Tumblr, just published a joint statement with the president of Planned Parenthood at SXSW to be an advocate in defense of Planned Parenthood and introduced a Tumblr-led campaign called #TechStandsWithPP. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz went all-in with a Super Bowl spot that showed the social impact that his company has had on hundreds of thousands of people.

Perhaps the most telling and transformational example of a brand moving from purposeful to purpose-led is Airbnb. As a service that was known for couch-surfing and low-cost lodging, the company began reorienting its mission in 2013 and better articulating its purpose. Countless conversations, focus groups and soul-searching sessions led the brand to hit upon its purpose in 2014: to make people around the world feel like they could belong anywhere. In fact, “Belong Anywhere” became its tagline. The brand became a technological conduit for people to come together, and Airbnb could help alleviate the “universal human yearning to belong.” This purpose went way beyond travel; it actualized the Airbnb brand for the human race. The brand wants people to go on a journey to become better, more complete versions of themselves.

Other brands are taking notice of such transformations and the power of humanity to drive business. That’s why purposeful brands are increasingly popping up in culture. That was clear during the Super Bowl, Grammy’s and Oscars when Budweiser began looking into a purpose around immigration; Audi shed light on a cultural conversation around gender and equal pay; and Lumber 84 beautifully and courageously articulated a border-crossing story that many of their workers know all too well.

Of course, our ingrained cynicism will chalk these efforts up to knee-jerk opportunism and elitist puffery. And yet, they seem to be so much more—they are corporate attempts to create brand purpose and evolve it beyond love and esteem on the part of their customers. A recent EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business Review study of 474 executives found that an overwhelming number of business leaders believe, in theory, that purpose is a transformative lever: 85 percent strongly agree that they are more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose and 84 percent strongly agree that business transformation efforts will have greater success if integrated with purpose. In reality, the sentiment is much different. Only 46 percent think that their organization has a strong sense of purpose and 37 percent believe that their business model and operations are well-aligned with purpose.

And therein lies the tension, and opportunity. Brands that want to be purposeful can become a purpose-led brand, but not without intention. Intention, without action, is cowardly.

Max Lenderman is the founder of  Project Worldwide agency School, based in Boulder, Colo.

@maxlenderman Max Lenderman teaches at Denver Ad School (DAD), University of Colorado Boulder and is a member of the Adweek Academic Council.