The aim of brand purpose is to change the world for the better (most of the time).

Through purpose, brands are becoming more than a quality mark or an abstract expression of self, they’re taking direct action.

And with the spotlight firmly on a number of sectors to be accountable for their actions, the challenge becomes finding the ‘right’ purpose; one that’s genuine, gets people on side, but also makes commercial sense.

Here, we cut through the noise surrounding the consumer-led phenomenon that is brand purpose, outlining how consumer insights help brands shape it, and maximize its impact.

The difference between brand purpose and CSR

The Business Roundtable recently dropped its ‘shareholder first’ doctrine, recognizing that major corporations have a responsibility to a wider group of stakeholders. 

This move places new importance on the already established idea of brand purpose and guarantees board-level support.

On the surface, brand purpose may seem like just a new term for CSR, but the two are distinct in two key ways.

1. It doesn’t have to focus on social or environmental good (but it often does).

Although many brands today shout about their desire to ‘do good’, purpose is not exclusively about social or environmental initiatives, though they’re undoubtedly the most powerful and commonly seen examples. 

It’s more about the fundamental essence of the business and where it’s heading.

Ben and Jerry’s, for example, split their purpose into three: product, social and environmental, and are transparent about the commercial goals of the business.

2. Purpose is baked into the branding.

CSR often runs in parallel to the business, has allocated budget and (in its worst form) exists only to offset a company’s negative impact. Purpose, however, doesn’t come from the marketing department alone, it’s visible in all elements of the business, from promotional material to operations. 

Put simply, where CSR is a commercial objective, purpose is branding and culture objective.

Established brands need to find their purpose

Brand purpose has become a key talking point recently, so although CSR initiatives are becoming a top priority among established brands, building purpose into your business requires no small measure of strategic and analytical thinking. 

It’s harder to add purpose to brands with established brands with legacy baggage, putting them at a disadvantage to younger brands.

Bill Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, states “a principal isn’t a principle until it’s cost you money”. 

But for young brands that structure their whole business models around strong principles, they turn what is a challenge for larger brands into an opportunity to drive consumer engagement and eventually sales.

The commercial benefit of purpose

There’s no hiding the fact that brand purpose has to make financial sense. But when the intent is genuine, and the impact positive, commercial gain follows – and our latest research tells us why.

Purpose drives engagement

We know consumers want more than a transactional relationship with the brands they buy from and interact with.

Taking the luxury fashion sector as an example, we identified that personal relationships trigger positive commercial responses in consumers in four key ways:

Chart showing what buyers expect from luxury brands?

With the right purpose, consumers will not only engage with your brand, they’re more likely to spread the word. Personal recommendations remain one of the most powerful awareness drivers.

Tread carefully: woke-washing

But consumers are also acutely aware of false purpose, and we’ve seen from pulled campaigns by the likes of Pepsi and Gillette, that they’re quick to pick up on misguided purpose, even if the campaigns reflect popular, genuine sentiments.

The term ‘woke-washing’ describes work that promises to improve the world but doesn’t take real action. Brands without a clear purpose who jump on the bandwagon are actually doing more damage than good.

Chart showing what factors that damage brand reputation.

With the pressure on to not only find a purpose, but the ‘right’ purpose, brands should first seek to identify the trends that matter most to the people they’re targeting.

Steps to identifying your brand purpose

Finding the right brand purpose comes from listening to consumers at different levels. 

While purpose shouldn’t be driven by commercial gain, to ensure you get the best results as a business it’s important to look beyond purchase behaviors alone towards who your target consumers are and what they value as people

1. Get a local perspective. 


Sentiments change dramatically across borders and even within countries. 

Local data enables you to identify elements in consumers’ personal lives that trigger actions (both from a commercial and wider perspective) and tailor your messaging accordingly. 


Regional data from GlobalWebIndex allows you to segment, compare and analyze consumers in a specific area to see how their commercial and emotional responses relate to wider populations. There are four key psychographic indicators that should be highlighted in each region. 

  • Attitudes, interests and self-perceptions
  • Lifestyle motivations
  • Perceptions on wider life
  • Brand advocacy

2. Cross-reference with global trends. 


Knowing which trends carry the most momentum globally can help negate risks, as well as maximize the potential impact of your message, especially if speaking about potentially controversial topics. 

Global trend analysis will also help predict where specific trends are heading to ensure you don’t follow one that will dissipate.


With your local findings, compare them to wider, overarching trends to identify the most commonly shared sentiments among your target market. 

Assess how the findings fit with your global trends to ensure scalability, continuity and longevity at a local level.

3. Explore sector-specific sentiments.


Having identified trends and patterns on a local and global level, now you should look look closely at consumers in your sector. 

These consumers are the most valuable source of information on trends in the industry. And knowing them in granular data is pivotal to finding the purpose that resonates in your sector. 


Apply the psychographic indicators mentioned in point one to your specific market to find out how your consumers compare to the wider local and global populations.

4. Consult brand and competitor data. 


Brand data enables you to see your own brand’s reputation, alongside your competitor’s. 

Looking specifically at your own reception among your consumers and wider markets is the final layer to truly identify how to challenge perceptions, improve opinions and drive positive sentiment.


Custom surveys get to the heart of what consumers think about your brand and others in the industry by letting you ask the most pertinent questions, tailored to your needs.

Uncover their opinions on specific brands and competitors, what they value about brands with a strong purpose, and analyze their attitudes to wider life. 

5. Test your ideas and concepts.


When purpose is misguided, it can backfire. It’s important to ensure your message is one that people identify with, and is transparent in its intent.


Testing consumer response to specific concepts or campaigns that encompass your brand’s purpose will help you shape and reshape before launch. 

Lessons from Unilever: Taking purpose seriously

Despite not having the ‘purpose pedigree’ of smaller brands, big brands stand to benefit greatly from introducing fresh and considered ideologies into their brand’s message. 

Unilever, a multinational company celebrating its 90th birthday, is one brand that proves purpose isn’t simply a luxury buzzword, but a guiding light for all decision-making.

Purpose starts at the top.

Here’s what Alan Jope, CEO, has to say on the role of purpose within the CPG sector: 

“Purpose is one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve seen for this industry in my 35 years of marketing. Done properly, done responsibly, it will help us restore trust in our industry, unlock greater creativity in our work, and grow the brands we love.”

Brand purpose gets results.

“Brands taking action for people and the planet grew 69% faster than the rest of our business last year, explains Jope. 

Now we’re committing that in the future, every Unilever brand will be a brand with purpose.

We’ll dispose of brands that don’t stand for something”

Woke-washing pollutes purpose. 

Speaking at the Cannes Lions, Jope said woke-washing was undermining the credibility of the advertising industry and eroding trust in it.

“However, purposeful marketing is at an important crossroads. Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose.

It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply.” 

Purpose is a consumer-led phenomenon

Purpose is not just a box-ticking exercise – it should support global progress. It’s also a necessary part of a compelling brand story.

Brand purpose dictates which direction the brand story takes, gives the message momentum, and invites consumers to be part of the journey. 

Consumers hold the key to identifying the ‘right’ purpose. One that balances the need to do good with commercial gain. After all, the two are not mutually exclusive.

With all brands under the microscope for their impact, a unique opportunity arises for those prepared to consider purpose deeply, look to understand what it is consumers want, and respond with a genuine, pragmatic approach.

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Written by

Sandy is Head of Consumer Products at GWI. Sandy has long experience in global marketing strategy and especially in the use of consumer data to inform better business decisions. His career spans a number of roles consulting with world’s biggest consumer goods companies on strategic projects from segmentation and loyalty to new market development and ecommerce optimization.

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