Coronavirus and the brand purpose debate

Will the coronavirus lockdown change the way consumers and marketers think about brands?

The debate around ‘brand purpose’ has been one of the most tedious and persistent discussions across the marketing press for the last few years. 

On one extreme, brand purpose evangelists think that every business must deliver some kind of higher moral good in order to connect with modern audiences, that newly socially-conscious consumers will only reward those brands who can demonstrate that they share their values.

On the other hand, cynics see the whole issue as an expression of lefty, metropolitan self-loathing marketeers who can’t face the fact that their job is to help sell things rather than tackle climate change or end global poverty.

I think the sudden shock of our current predicament might just give our industry the jolt it needs to move past this stagnant and polarised narrative. 

(To be clear, it’s far too early to start making forecasts about the post-pandemic world, so this is more of a hope than a prediction.)

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Consider it: a big section of the population are now sitting at home worrying about friends, family and jobs.

We’re not going to go to our favourite pub, cinema, shop, gym or sports match or interact with any brands at all across the hospitality, travel, entertainment or retail sectors.

Those brands that we are still engaging with - our utility providers, grocery brands, banks and mortgage providers - suddenly feel like vital public services that we absolutely depend on for our sense of security and wellbeing. 

In this new context - as our worlds have become much smaller and our lives become much greyer - the idea of ‘brand purpose’ is shown in sharp relief. 

They exist to add colour and texture to our lives through shared experiences and memories. 

They provide the security and stability that let us go about our lives without worrying. 

They give us personal moments of pleasure or escape or joy or discovery or adventure.

But - and this is the thing that many marketers seem to have forgotten - they do this by providing us with things we want and need, not through gimmicks or ad campaigns. 

Now that we have been deprived of them perhaps we will recognise that a brand doesn’t need to align itself with some grand, world-changing initiative to have a worthwhile purpose. 

If you try to ladder-up a product’s benefits too far, you're in danger of missing the absolute gold that's right in front of you.

If you are a pub, (God I miss the pub) there is nothing more magnificent or grand than giving us a good atmosphere and good drinks. 

If you make washing detergent, there is nothing small or ignoble about enabling us to clean our clothes, conveniently and efficiently. 

If you are a bank, then your important job is to help us look after our money - we will be grateful when times are hard.

And yes of course, we expect you to do these things fairly and sustainably, but don’t confuse the way in which you do things with the purpose for which you do them in the first place.

Our job is to communicate the value of the products and services we sell so that they connect with our audiences, not reinvent them to be something they can never deliver on. 

And at the moment doing that successfully is as much as anyone could ask. 

So please, let’s end the debate.