guts logo | Brand Strategy Agency
6th April 2023
Have we lost the plot with brand purpose?
Ying Mckenzie
Written by:
Ying Mckenzie

We attended the Kantar BrandZ* livestream event recently where they launched their 2023 Most Valuable Australian Brands, and heard from some industry heavy weights. The first was Mark Ritson, marketing guru, agent provocateur and founder of Marketing Week Mini MBA. He battled it out with Ryan France, Head of Brand Strategy at Kantar Australia who gives evidence based on the BrandZ database. Both have wildly different views on the question of brand purpose, who’s side are you on?


Consumers don’t care about brand purpose

According to Mark Ritson, “We have lost the plot on brand purpose. Consumers don’t care.”. In his view, brand purpose is not the reason why people buy something.  It is the reason a brand would do something, but should not replace positioning as a driver of success. In his words, “Do it, if you believe in it, but not because you think it will make you more money. It’s probably going to cost you money to do it.”


The USP is dead

He also poured scorn on the Unique Selling Point (USP). In his opinion, brands don’t attract wildly different consumers and that having really specific personas and archetypes for targeting is pure bulls**t. Brands measuring USPs will often be disappointed as these take a long time to build and only appear as relative differences. He gives the example of St. George Bank, which is positioned as the friendly bank. It is not the only friendly bank and does not mean that other brands are not friendly, but is the friendlier bank because it has a relative difference to competitors, and it has been saying it for longer, more often, in a better way and with more money behind it. So, not a USP but a relative difference.


‘Prosaic targeting’ do tell...

He recommends ‘prosaic targeting’ where brands reject overcomplex segmentation and target really well, i.e. targeting at least 90% of the potential market with a prosaic difference. Sephora does this well, which is positioned as ‘a fun place to learn about beauty’. This is simple and prosaic, without the need to include any soul-searching transcendental elements in it. Mark gives one recommendation which most marketers would agree on; focus only on 2 or 3 attributes, which are enduring, with at least a 10-year focus.


Feeling of rightness

And just when brand purpose is feeling down in the dumps, Ryan France comes in to defend its honour. In his view, brand purpose has a place in consumer choice and can influence decision making. Consumers decide using two systems: reflective scrutiny, where one is deliberate and uses conscious reflection or simply because ‘it just feels right’ (Binet & Field, 2013). The majority of people use the latter system, and the feeling of rightness is related to brand trust.


The big and little P of purpose

If purpose is roughly defined as ‘makes lives better’, then there are 3 routes to build brand trust: functional, emotional or societal/sustainable.

Hellman’s mayonnaise is a global example of having a functional purpose, makes salads and sandwiches better. Closer to home, an Australian example is Seek, to help employers get their job ads out there. They don’t build brand Seek, but are helpful, giving tips on how to get the job you want. They represent the little p of purpose.

Cadbury is an example of a brand taking the emotional route with the brand purpose of generosity. It has worked really well because it is legitimate, differentiating and what people are looking for.


The purpose of purpose is purpose

Only recently has brand purpose been read to mean something that ladders up to a societal higher purpose. This is the big P of purpose. Both Ritson and France agree that the ‘purpose of purpose is purpose’ . Stick with us! 🙃 A great example is Patagonia, a brand built on environmental sustainability, whose founder recently gave it away for $3 billion to help address climate change.

While Kantar’s BrandZ data shows sustainability does not contribute directly to brand equity, it could be a reason for customers NOT to choose a brand. The example given is Woolworths, the third most valuable brand in Australia (after Comm Bank and Canva). Its biggest differentiators are that it has a good range, fits into everyday life and a better online and mobile experience (very functional).  While perceptions of being environmentally conscious have increased for Woolworths over time, it has not given the brand a competitive advantage but may be a risk factor for customer not to choose it.


To do something or to say something?

But doing nothing is not an option. ‘Nearly 100% of CEOs believe that sustainability is critical for their companies’ future success’ (UNGC-Accenture). The question is not whether sustainability is important or not (it is), it is whether to communicate it. The answer comes down to legitimacy. Advertising a purpose message which is not authentic and a poor fit for the brand is more detrimental than not saying anything at all.


Time for Guts to weigh in

Who do we agree with? The short answer… both… sort of. Purpose is at its best when it’s a part of your DNA and gives you a reason for everything you do. Purpose can absolutely give you a competitive edge but only if it is authentic, unique, and your people absolutely believe it. We’ve said it before. Live it or don’t bother.

In line with Ritson, we believe we should be looking for the common mindset and not the differences by having overcomplex segmentation. We agree with France in that brand purpose may not be top of mind when it comes to brand choice but it can and will contribute to the feeling of rightness over time. The difference is to know when to dial it up or down depending on its authenticity to a brand.

When making the sale, purpose should play less of a starring role. However, when building strategic advantage in the long term, this is where purpose shines. Building loyalty, attracting talent, building a culture of innovation, giving your team clarity and direction. Purpose will sway strongly in these areas which can create brand value. So….


Don’t give up on brand purpose and the USP

It’s horses for courses. Because even if brands are there to do a functional job, the best brands have the secret sauce, something unconventional and intangible that helps it cut through. Think Omo ‘dirt is good’, when every other brand portrayed dirt as the enemy, it went for the opposite mindset and in return, built a brand around embracing the messiness of real life.

Also, if everybody went for the prosaic, how boring would our world be? We think marketers and brand managers should continue to think big and don’t eschew imagination, because these humans we’re trying to connect with… they’re complicated.

So be authentic, be strategic, be consistent, and whatever you do, just don’t be boring.


* BrandZ is a massive database spanning 20 years with over 500 categories, 51 countries, over 19,000 brands. It is a valuation tool which uses publicly available financial data (mostly from Bloomberg) and multiply that by brand contribution (what drives future choice in consumer’s minds, based on consumer interviews) to create a brand value.



  • Kantar BrandZ Most Valuable Australian Brands 2023

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