Brands should follow Obama's advice to be useful and kind
A view from Jon Goldstone

Brands should follow Obama's advice to be useful and kind

Have a purpose - but ensure it is true to the brand and its customers, says The Brandgym's Jon Goldstone.

As a former marketer at Unilever, one of the questions that I’m most frequently asked is: "Do you really believe in all that brand purpose stuff?" 

The short answer is that I do. Most of all, I believe the business case for purpose. The Unilever brands with a high-quality, purpose-based proposition clearly outperform their competitors, command higher margins and are a real force for good.

However, in the wake of Cannes – where just about every award and seminar seemed to be related to brand purpose – and, more recently, Grey’s decision to return its bronze Lion for the I Sea app, it feels like a good time for reflection.

It is obvious that "brand purpose" has become an overused and poorly understood concept.

A while ago, I saw an interview with Barack Obama that really helped me get my head around the whole brand purpose thing. When asked by the interviewee (Bear Grylls, bizarrely!) if he had ever suggested to his daughters that they should get into politics, he gave a wonderful answer. He said that he only ever gave them one piece of advice, which was to be useful and to be kind.

I feel that brands can learn from that advice. "Be useful, be kind" is a pretty good definition of brand purpose. To be useful, a brand needs to serve a meaningful role – to solve a problem or satisfy a need better than the closest alternative. To be kind, a brand needs to speak to its target audience in a tone that is authentic, honest and transparent. If a brand does this, over time it will become trusted. With brand trust comes the ability to charge a premium, invest back into the brand and fuel the virtuous cycle of growth.

So many brands seem to get it wrong. They end up with grandiose purpose statements that are distant from the true role of the brand and horribly generic. I recently saw McDonald’s being berated for its claim: "Our purpose goes beyond what we sell. We’re using our reach to be a positive force. For our customers. For our people. Our communities. Our world."

This feels like a stretch. That said, in my experience, McDonald’s offers good-value, good-quality food to busy people. It is a useful brand. Its recent advertising, which attempts to debunk some of the myths around its products, comes across as honest and transparent. It is certainly trying to be a kind brand.

At Unilever, it is mandated that every brand-positioning statement includes a section where the brand purpose is clearly stated. However, for every Dove or Ben & Jerry’s, there are plenty of brands whose brand purpose is relatively humble.

Pot Noodle, the ultimate quick student snack, has a purpose to give ambitious young people the time to get on and be successful. This definition of the brand’s purpose provided the creative springboard for the award-winning "You can make it" campaign. The purpose is rooted in a brand truth (Pot Noodle takes four minutes to make), cultural context (students have stopped being layabouts and aspire to being start-up millionaires) and a human truth (young people appreciate a helping hand).

It might seem odd that Pot Noodle should be considered to be as purposeful as Dove but I think that’s the point. Pot Noodle could have made a claim about the provenance of its noodles. It could have announced a mission to improve the working rights of noodle workers around the world. But none of this would have been true to the brand or the memory structures that it has built up over several decades. Instead, Pot Noodle remained true to its role in people’s lives (being useful) and maintained a tone that was consistent with its past – truthful and transparent (being kind).

So at a time of turbulence and uncertainty, when people are looking for brands to trust, my advice would be to keep it very simple. Develop a purposeful proposition that is true to the times but is also true to your brand and the people that it serves. It might be helpful to take inspiration from Obama and ask yourself: is my brand useful and is my brand kind?

Brand purpose: highs and lows

Deutsche Telekom and Saatchi & Saatchi wanted to empower people to "game for good" and came up with the concept of Sea Hero Quest. Developed in partnership with a team of scientific researchers from University College London, the University of East Anglia and gaming experts Glitchers, Sea Hero Quest helps advance research into spatial navigation to understand one of the first symptoms of dementia. The game went on to win nine Cannes Lions this year.

Under the campaign hashtag "#unstereotype", Unilever has pledged to stamp out gender stereotypes in its ads. Commenting on the initiative, senior vice-president of global marketing Aline Santos said: "We’ve listened to consumers and looked at the way we portray gender in our advertising and realised we need to do things differently."

After Grey Singapore – through its Grey for Good division – won a bronze Lion for its I Sea app, which claimed to "crowdsource the search of the seas for migrants", it was quickly revealed that the app did not actually work. In a statement, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the client, declared: "We were dismayed to discover that real images were not being used. We have discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good."