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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

Brand purpose: because it’s good for business or it’s the right thing to do?

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s announcement last week that he’s giving away the company to fight climate change filled me with hope.

All of Patagonia’s excess profits - about $100 million a year - will be channelled into tackling the biggest crisis that has ever faced humanity. It’s not just the act itself - as dazzlingly generous as it is - which is so cheering. It’s the example it sets for other entrepreneurs who want to make a positive difference to people and the planet. We all need purpose in our lives. To feel that we’re making a real impact in the world during the hours we spend on our businesses. But as Patagonia has shown, purpose goes beyond personal satisfaction - it can be the fuel that drives your business forward too.

Here’s how: To start with, not everyone is Yvon Choinard, or at least not yet… so sometimes we need somewhere else to start. Fulfilment lies in working towards something that is bigger than ourselves, something beyond obligation and the daily grind. We all need purpose in our lives and as the leadership team of a startup or SME, that purpose should at least in part be realised through all the hours you put into it every day, shouldn’t it? Money is necessary but it’s not what makes us happy, it’s not what drives passion. What is it that you believe in and how is your company contributing to that goal? How is your company solving a problem in the world, even if it’s not (yet) focussed on the environment or social good?

Once you have this nailed, you can start to think about how you can use your purpose to do bigger things for the world. It’s a starting point on your journey. It’s a way to avoid greenwashing as it comes from a place that is meaningful to you and your team. For example you might have developed some software that makes work easier for remote teams. Your vision and passiona is about connecting people. From this starting point you could expand this to supporting mental health and loneliness in the wider community and find ways you can use your knowledge and experience to bring about a positive change.

So beyond being a good thing for you, how does it drive your company forward?

Belief - as I’ve written before, brands are built on the inside first. So, the first rule of building a strong culture is - give people something to believe in - enter purpose. If the only motivation you give your employees is their pay check, then you won’t have their heart and soul, you just have their obligation. But give them something to believe in that aligns with their values, then that’s a different story altogether. It’s not just your employees who need belief, it’s you as the founder too, and the investors you need to convince to part with their cash. If you started the company simply to make money, it’s going to be tough to dig deep when times get hard and find the motivation to keep going if there is nothing deeper driving you forward. Investors are also not so likely to belive in you - they need to know when the chips are down, you're not going to give up.

Momentum - what this internal belief gives you is momentum. Passion is contagious and a team of empowered, passionate people can achieve great things. This passion not only drives your internal team but it’s felt by everyone who comes into contact with your company and those serendipitous opportunities start to pop up - you can make your own luck with passion. Purpose helps you expand your audience more quickly. When your brand is built on purpose, you can find other brands in your ecosystem who have a similar point of view and partner with them to share and grow your audiences. Getting noticed as a new brand is hard. If you have something to talk about beyond product, then you can connect with other people, brands, organisations, clubs, teams, groups… and build symbiotic partnerships to grow your brand faster.

Differentiation - from your customers’ point of view, it’s very likely that you are not the only person selling your product or service. What sets you apart? Sure there may be some product features that you have over your competitors, but ultimately decision making is mostly emotional - there is evidence to back this up. So whether your brand gets chosen or not comes down to how people feel about you. You still need to be there when they make that decision, and you need to be top of mind, which is where traditional marketing comes in, but the backbone of your brand needs to be rooted in meaning. With a brand purpose that can really be felt through the experience with it (this is important, your purpose can’t just remain as a line in your brand book), you have the opportunity to connect with people in a much deeper way - to align with their values and beliefs. That’s a recipe for a loyal customer base and it’s shareable.

Clarity - Having a strong purpose gives clarity to everything you do. When presented with a new opportunity you can ask yourself the question “does this align with our purpose?” Which provides a helpful filter. As a startup it can be very difficult to stay focussed - of course this comes from more than just your purpose, but it helps a lot. Questions like “Is this the right partner for us? Should we enter this market or not” become easier when you have your purpose to guide you along with all the other elements of a strong brand (vision, mission, values, personality, positioning etc,) it’s like a compass.

It’s more fun, and rewarding - defining your purpose is hugely motivating for you as the founder or the founding team. It helps you find meaning in what you do (for you and for everyone). If you’re a small business that has been around for a while this could be exactly the shake up you need to find some new energy for the brand. Successful businesses today are not built like factories as they used to be. They are ecosystems that need to be bubbling with life to succeed. Purpose injects the bubbles.

Because it’s your responsibility - without being too preachy, doesn’t the news and response to Yvon Chouinard’s decision to give away his company in order for it to continue its mission “to save planet Earth” demonstrate the fact that we are all responsible for and capable of helping to get ourselves out of the hole we’ve all collectively put ourselves in? We may not all be billionaires but we can all think about why we are doing what we are doing and shift to a more purpose-driven existence. If we have the power to make a difference at all, shouldn’t we use it?

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