Wilson Fletcher

Brand purpose: your most important digital asset

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A sentence might not immediately scream 'vital digital asset', but as organisations communicate and connect with consumers across an ever-growing range of contexts and platforms, rock solid brand foundations are increasingly important. A humble string of words can create the edge in the digital marketplace.

Twenty years ago, a product or service would be purchased directly and experienced in a predefined, controlled and closed environment – whether the product was a chocolate bar, a restaurant or a bank account. There was a single way to experience the product. Today, organisations have much less control over how their products are experienced.

The platforms on which we interact with products have proliferated, as have the lenses through which each experience happens. From instant articles, to the social graph, to algorithms, to programmatic advertising, to the range of devices used at any point in time, there are almost infinite possible permutations of each experience.

There’s a danger of brands becoming reactive to these permutations, by expanding, adopting and copying others in order to engage successfully on each new platform. They look to mimic each new format, feature set, or new en-vogue interaction, for each new desirable audience, without understanding why. In the rapid world of digital, brands need to work extra hard to make sure their identity doesn’t get washed away completely. Identity is the one differentiator everybody has.

This challenge is felt most acutely by natively digital brands. New services are often created to serve unmet needs, so the functional benefit is an easy sell: here’s something that wasn’t possible before, or here’s a way to do something important to you faster, cheaper, or easier. To hold onto a place in a customer’s everyday life and save being replaced by the next service promising the same – or, worse, being forgotten – products need more than great features. Powerful technology, deep data and beautiful interfaces all help, but the ingredient that holds it all together is purpose.

Harvard Business School professor David Collis recently said: “It’s a dirty little secret: most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.” Most organisations have a purpose statement lurking somewhere, but if nobody knows it, then it’s not doing its job.

A purpose shouldn’t gather dust, it should be used every single day. If a purpose is stowed away in the proverbial attic of an old PDF, it’s time to chuck it out and get a new one.

A purpose fit for an organisation in the digital age needs:

1. To belong to the team

Fundamentally, a brand purpose energises and focuses the entire organisation to deliver a consistently engaging experience to customers. In order for it to sit beneath every experience of the brand, it has to be the motivator for those creating the experiences. Teams have to own it, to channel it into everything they do. Everybody within the organisation must feel that the purpose is theirs, not something that’s dictated by pre-occupied boards, decades-old notions of ‘the brand’ or faraway agencies.

2. To give focus

A great purpose is a collective focus that is felt both within the organisation and by its customers. This permanent linchpin is crucial to being adaptive. Organisations with a strong brand purpose know instinctively what they should and should not be doing. They can go after the right things with more commitment and fervour. A purpose should be able to act as a gatekeeper for roadmapping and prioritisation. Every investment should have to deliver on the central brand promise.

3. To be relatable

The thing’s gotta mean something to customers. Resist the temptation to have a purpose that talks about vague notions of ‘better’, ‘a better way to...’, ‘the best...’. Just as clarity and focus mean a brand is more likely to energise teams and be adopted in everything they do, a great purpose gives customers something to latch onto emotionally.

For digital brands, this connection with customers must happen instantly, and continuously, so brand expression must come from a place that resonates clearly.

4. To be expansive

To form the foundations of a brand that continuously engages its audiences interaction after interaction, purpose has to capture the imagination. It needs to inspire creativity and spark new ideas for internal teams, as well as capturing the imaginations of customers. A narrow purpose leads to narrow engagement and a brand that either means something or doesn’t to its customers. A brand with a more expansive purpose, however, can be more generous to customers, inviting them to use the brand however they interpret it, creating connections that run deeper, for longer.

5. To be visionary

A great purpose must be grounded equally in current truth and in the long- term aspirations for the brand. It must speak to a future version of the company, framed by the ultimate goal. Purpose should encapsulate a vision of what value the company promises to create for its customers, now and in the future. This vision must encapsulate a greater good that’s as compelling for customers as it is for those within the organisation.

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Most organisations have a purpose statement lurking somewhere, but if nobody knows it, then it’s not doing its job.