The Coca-Cola Co. strives to “refresh the world and make a difference”.1  In the past few years, the company has been embroiled in a number of controversies, from its position on new Georgia voting laws2  to its portrayal of immigrants in a commercial3  to funding scientists who shifted blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.4  Brands — and big brands, in particular — are finding it harder and harder to position themselves effectively for the masses.

Many of these controversies have occurred at the same time there is increasing interest in “brand purpose,” which is an element of branding that answers the fundamental question: Why should this brand exist, given all the other brands in the marketplace? Marketers frame this in the following way: “How can this brand create novel value for consumers (i.e., a unique position in the marketplace) such that it can sustain profitable growth over time?”

As described in University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Kimberly Whitler’s new book, Positioning for Advantage: Techniques and Strategies to Grow Brand Value,” brand purpose provides the North Star for a brand and helps align and focus an organization. It should help provide, if designed and activated correctly, important guidance and guardrails that can protect a brand from stepping into hot water or navigate those challenges when they’re unavoidable.

There are five ways in which successful brands effectively design and activate their purposes.

1. Align Brand Purpose With Value Created for Consumers

An important criterion when designing brand purpose is to make sure it is anchored on the consumer. Therefore, brand leaders should ensure that brand purpose is aligned with creating value for their target consumer.

As an example, consider PetSmart’s purpose: “Every day with every connection, PetSmarts passionate associates help bring pet parents closer to their pets so they can live more fulfilled lives.”5  Can you imagine what type of consumer might best fit with such purpose? PetSmart’s target happens to be individuals who treat their pets as a family member — the most involved of pet parents. Consequently, this purpose is connected to what their target consumer wants.

2. Provide Clear Direction by Defining Scope

A well-written and applied brand purpose will create new opportunities by providing opportunity for brand value to grow over time while providing adequate boundaries and direction. If the purpose is too broad, a brand can waste resources, time and effort in unrelated activities that fail to create synergistic value. While being too broad provides the opportunity for a brand to be unfocused and undirected, a brand with a too-narrow scope can lead to missed growth and elevation opportunities.

Consider Dyson’s purpose: “To solve the problems that others choose to ignore.” Best known for its vacuum cleaners, Dyson is focused on engineering, efficiency and functionality to solve customer needs. The scope is clear, and this kind of customer solution-based purpose is very different than the purpose of, say, Coca-Cola, which makes a broader purpose statement declaring it will “refresh the world and make a difference.” There are millions of ways a brand can make a difference. If you worked at Coca-Cola, how clear is the boundary that is being set?

3. Align Brand Activation With the Purpose

A good brand purpose helps brand leaders identify what activation efforts are “in-bounds” or “out-of-bounds.” Brands must be disciplined when applying their purpose. A brand purpose has no use if brand actions don’t align with it. Often a brand will face pressure internally from employees and externally from customers or other stakeholders to take action or make a statement on a specific issue making headlines or impacting society. A brand should carefully determine if the issue is relevant to the brand’s purpose and falls within the boundaries it has defined. If not, it will end up following the loudest and most vocal complainant.

Consider again Coca-Cola’s brand purpose. Imagine if it was: “refresh the world and make a difference that unites people and communities.” Currently, the words “make a difference” allow the brand to pursue anything. In fact, it might encourage the company to address everything that might matter to the people running its brands. By adding the italicized words, the brand would be choosing to focus on making a difference in a way that brings people and communities together. It would create a new boundary. This is not to say the revised brand purpose is right, but to provide an example of how greater definition in the brand purpose can help sharpen activation efforts. It provides a new lens through which to consider how the company would “make a difference” and should effectively change what the company does. As you can see, word choice is very important in defining brand purpose.

4. Make Activation of the Brand Purpose Authentic

When making public statements or placing advertising messages, brands today face increased scrutiny. Brands should expect that the public will look at the brand’s actions and call attention to any hypocrisy. It is important that a brand “walk the talk” while publicly advocating on issues.

When brands start to advertise their values and virtues (i.e., brand purpose), they face an uphill climb in convincing consumers that the efforts are altruistic and not meant to drive profit. A recent survey suggests 4 out of 10 consumers think brands are trying too hard to appear like they care.6  Diving into an initiative where a brand does not live up to its purpose will immediately result in pushback from an already skeptical customer base. Trust is the most precious brand attribute marketers can strengthen. Authentically delivering brand purpose is part of this.

5. Align Brand Purpose with Company Purpose

One mistake brands often make is that they don’t consider the relationship with the parent company brand or other brands within the parent company umbrella. It’s crucial that one brand purpose isn’t in conflict with another.

For example, when Dove launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” the parent company, Unilever, found themselves in some hot water as the company also owns the Axe brand. The problem? Dove was attacking brands that used artificial beauty because it eroded the confidence of women while Axe was, in fact, sexualizing women. The hypocrisy led to some undesirable public media attention. Smart brand purpose will ensure that, at a minimum, one brand’s purpose doesn’t conflict with another’s.

Strategy, Strategy, Strategy

It’s not an accident that the word “align” appears often in the five steps to effectively design and activate brand purpose. It is a strategic process in which company purpose, brand purpose, brand activation, and consumer need and perceptions must fit.

Consider the Nehemiah Manufacturing Co., whose corporate purpose includes bringing manufacturing jobs back to the inner city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Many of the company’s employees “need a chance to prove themselves” due to a “spotty work history” or “a record blemished in some way.” Nehemiah labels itself as “the second chance company” with a mission to “build brands, create jobs and change lives.” The company’s brand activation includes telling many of the “second-chance stories” of its employees.7

The elements of Nehemiah’s company purpose, brand purpose and brand activation are aligned. The same can be said of Dyson, though Dyson’s purpose is more focused on the direct product-related value it creates for consumers and Nehemiah is more focused on a broader purpose that extends beyond the boundary of products. Both types of purpose can work or fail. The broader ones can fail to provide a boundary. The narrow ones may fail to inspire employees, consumers and stakeholders who want to be part of something bigger.

Designing brands is a strategic exercise meant to help position a brand to win in the marketplace. That means it has to be designed in a way that is better and different from the competition and creates real, meaningful value for consumers. It also means that it should help the brand grow — not create direction that results in consumers boycotting and defecting.

Brand purpose is just one element — but an important element — that helps begin the process of defining what a brand will stand for. If a brand’s purpose is effectively aligned, scoped and activated, it can result in increased customer engagement and brand growth. However, effectively designing and activating brand purpose takes significant consideration and reflection to create something that moves the brand in a better, not worse, direction.

This article was condensed from the technical note Brand Purpose (Darden Business Publishing) by Professor Kimberly Whitler and Mark Pohl (MBA ’21), an associate brand manager at The Hershey Co. Whitler is the author of the book Positioning for Advantage.

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About the Expert

Kimberly A. Whitler

Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration

Whitler is an authority on marketing, with expertise in marketing strategy, brand management, and marketing performance. Her research centers on understanding how a firm’s marketing performance is affected by its C-suite and board.

A prolific writer as well as researcher, Whitler has authored nearly 100 articles related to C-level marketing management challenges and is a contributor for Forbes and Social Media Marketing Magazine named her one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter.

Whitler has held leadership roles, including GM and CMO positions, within the consumer packaged goods and retailing industries, including Procter & Gamble, David’s Bridal and PetSmart. She has helped build $1B+ brands, including Tide, Bounce, Downy and Zest.

B.A., Eureka College; MBA, University of Arizona Eller School of Business; M.S., Ph.D., Indiana University Kelley School of Business