A New Playbook for Building Brands - Part 3: Brands with Purpose

“Purpose” is the “in thing” with modern day brands. Some of the newest and fastest growing companies are racing to sprinkle the powder dust of purpose on their brands to keep up with the times. Recently, Inc. magazine named the “20 Most-Purpose Driven Brands” of 2022, including the likes of “Seventh Generation” and “Toms” on one end and “Zoom” and “Allbirds” on the other .

But if you are a marketer, you have to ask: Is this just a fad? Is this a box that all brands must check?

The reality is that brands with purpose are do work, and sometimes phenomenally well, though there is a “But.” For one, purpose-based marketing is not for all brands, and secondly, “how you do it” matters a ton.

Simply speaking, brands with purpose are brands on a mission – a social one. They use a portion of their sales to support a meaningful cause. When done in the right way, there’s magic, and it leads to increased brand usage and greater consumer loyalty.

Virtually, every Fortune 500 company has a long list of charities they support. That is not it. Companies do those to be good corporate citizens and build the profile of their executives. There is no brand magic there.

The Curious Case of Unilever

Arguably, the one company that truly raised the bar on building brands with purpose, before it was fashionable, is Unilever. Two decades back, Dove launched its “Real Beauty” campaign, a first-ever promotion to feature and celebrate real women. At the time, Unilever’s research in markets around the world revealed a valuable insight – that conventional cosmetics ads, which usually placed oddly perfect, near anorexic models on pedestal – in fact, made women, for whom the ads were intended, feel worse about their own bodies.

Unilever changed the paradigm with its Dove ads that instead featured and celebrated everyday women with realistic bodies – young and old, black and white, slim and full, and you name it – on their billboards. Women everywhere heaved a sigh of relief and responded like never before. The rest, as they say, is history.

The whole world awakened to the fact that real women too had beautiful bodies and ads across the industry started featuring normal women. Dove went on to become the biggest brand in Unilever’s portfolio.

That had a deep impact on how Unilever thought about brands. Alan Jope, who took over as the new CEO from Paul Polman in 2009, shortly thereafter in an investor conference proclaimed “We've organized all of our priorities in the company around three very deeply held beliefs: that brands with purpose grow, that companies with purpose last, and that people with purpose thrive .”

Fast forward a decade and you had Unilever boasting that “our 28 Sustainable Living Brands – those taking action to support positive change for people and the planet – grew 69% faster than the rest of our business. That's up from 46% in 2017 (in 2018). They also delivered 75% of our overall growth. The seven brands with the highest turnover in Unilever – Dove, Knorr, Persil/Omo, Rexona, Lipton, Hellmann’s and Wall’s – are all in the Sustainable Living Brands line-up.”

Yet, there is another part to this story that is not such a happy one. In the past 5 years, Unilever’s stock has flatlined and gone precisely nowhere. The firm has come under pressure from activist investors who would rather see the company deliver better margins. Alan Jope has stepped down and Hein Schumacher has taken reigns as the new CEO.

And this is a real head scratcher for marketers. How could a company that did so many things right fail to deliver for its shareholders?

For companies aspiring to build brands with purpose there are many valuable (or shall we say cautionary) lessons from what Unilever did well and where they didn’t.

What Unilever got right

Be “on-brand”

Every brand has its own DNA. We all know that. Therefore, when brands position themselves around a purpose, the latter too must align with the brand’s DNA. The brand cannot become a random do-gooder. Obvious, right?

Here’s one that makes you wonder. Harry’s is a company that sells inexpensive razor blades by direct mail via a monthly subscription. The brand’s DNA is around “complete comfort, quality first and honest prices.” So far, so good. But wait, there’s more! They also have a social mission – “Every year, we donate 1% of our sales, and a lot of our employees’ time to charitable organizations which share our ambition to bring good mental health care to men everywhere.”

Well, wonderful! But why? What has men’s mental health got to do with comfort, quality and low price or razor blades? Short answer: Nothing! Harry’s is a random do-gooder. They may have been more on brand had they helped men without means groom themselves better so they could be credible in job interviews for example.

On the other hand, when Dove launched its “Real Beauty” campaign, its soap had everything to do with women using it to enhance their beauty. In this context, Unilever had permission to define what beauty could mean and assert that every woman could be beautiful. They could challenge outdated notions around beauty and be the first to stake a claim around body positivity and make a meaningful difference in women’s’ lives.

Ok, so there you have it. Don’t do what Harry’s does. Do what Dove did. Be on brand.

Do what consumers can’t

Being a “Brand with Purpose” is about more than writing a check. These are the familiar campaigns you see with “We’ll send a dollar to charitable institution X for every purchase you make.” Panda Express even rings a little bell for you at the check out line if you add a dollar for youth programs to your tab for fried orange chicken.

But you have to ask, can’t the consumer herself write a check to the same charitable institutions? What’s the point of giving a dollar to the brand, and the brand then giving the dollar to the charity. Marketers sometimes forget, but there has to be a point to what the brand does!

In contrast, when a brand engages in a social cause in manner that individual consumers cannot, it adds value uniquely and becomes purposeful. Just look at what Unilever did successfully with Knorr, its brand for bouillon cubes.

Knorr was transformed into a brand with purpose by focusing it on helping people eat more nutritiously. To do this, Knorr invested heavily into understanding how consumers could use bouillon cubes to eat more healthily and then reengineered the product. For example, in the African continent, a key market, it discovered that consumers often suffer from iron deficiency.

Fortunately, a market survey revealed that nearly 80% of women used bouillon in cooking at home. This created a unique opportunity to explore if the brand could be a catalyst for better nutrition. Meanwhile, scientific research showed that adding tetra sodium pyrophosphate to the cubes could increase bioavailability of iron without making the food look or taste bad . And so did it.

The point is that this kind of a challenge can best be tackled by a company like Unilever that has food engineering expertise. It certainly is not something that individual consumers can orchestrate. But they can do is buy Knorr products and help ameliorate nutrition problems in Africa. And that they do.

This is yet another thing that Unilever did well in its quest for building “Brands with Purpose.”

Be authentic

It goes without saying that brands that choose to embrace purpose must do so credibly and authentically. What is less obvious is how they do that. How does a “Brand with Purpose” be authentic.

The single biggest litmus test for this is whether the brand can remain committed to its stated purpose even in the face of occasional adversity.

At Unilever, senior executives throughout the company embraced purpose for their brands. In 2019, speaking at the Deutsche Bank Global Consumer Conference in Paris, the then CEO Alan Jope said: “We believe the evidence is clear and compelling that brands with purpose grow. In fact, we believe this so strongly that we are prepared to commit that in the future, every Unilever brand will be a brand with purpose.”

Then the occasional adversity showed its face.

With the continuing lackluster performance of the company’s share price, Jope came under strong pressure from disenchanted shareholders who thought his focus on purpose was coming at the cost of inflated margins and distraction from the core. He subsequently toned down the rhetoric a bit “It (purpose for brands) is the icing on the cake … (but not) a substitute for having fantastic quality, innovation, advertising and distribution.”

Despite that moment of hesitation, Unilever by and large has retained its focus on purpose in its portfolio.

Marketers would do well to remember that brands with purpose as a strategy is the cake itself, not the icing and to remain authentic, a company has to hold the line.

What Unilever missed

Don’t over invest!

There is a fine balance between committing yourself to being a brand with purpose and overinvesting in it. To avoid the latter trap, one must always remember that brands are in the service of the consumer. Purpose is not there for its own sake, but ultimately to drive sales and profits. It is the latter that supports the purpose.

This means that only those projects must be undertaken that have a tangible connection to increasing the usage of the product, bringing in new consumers or keeping them loyal. With Dove, Unilever may have overinvested in programs to promote positive body images.

For example, Dove started workshops to help women see themselves more positively, and has a day every year when thousands of employees go to schools to facilitate training programs . They co-founded a coalition to help support the passage of the legislation called The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. that prohibits racial discrimination based on hairstyles.

While these initiatives are admirable and energize employees, are they best for driving brand revenues? Would Dove be better off continuing with its core campaign around Real Beauty on billboards and print? It would continue to increase awareness of the issue through mass media but not get involved in launching retraining schools, managing programs for Girl Scouts, and legislative advocacy? After all, each program requires time, attention, and resources.

How far you go is one of the toughest questions that a brand with purpose must address. These brands make the world a better place surely, but in a very specific way – namely by selling more.

Unilever may have gone overboard with some of its successful brands – because of their success and not despite it. Every dollar spent on programs with purpose must be spent wisely on those with the highest impact. It’s all about brand purpose, not purpose alone.

Not every brand in the portfolio needs a purpose

The consumer is the true north for brands – even brands with purpose. That in turn means that consumers must care enough about the purpose that they will buy the brand preferentially. In many cases the consumers may not care about a purpose, or not believe there is a role for your brand or simply care more about other features of the product.

Unilever’s Wall’s ice cream decided it’s purpose was all about making people happy. But is eradicating depression or ennui really top of mind for the ice-cream hungry? No, they care more about having a tasty treat. Unilever’s Hellman made curbing waste its brand mission. However, waste is a bigger problem not particularly tied to people guzzling down mayonnaise. So, while consumers may care about waste, they don’t see what Hellman’s has to do with it.

Unilever’s Axe deodorant brand also tried to shine the light on men having body image problems, moving away from its traditional strategy of talking about how women were wowed by the “Axe effect” . Well, that didn’t work. Men were less concerned about their own body image than in indulging in a mental fantasy about being sexy and fun for women. Or as Unilever’s marketers sheepishly admitted “the Axe got a bit too heavy.’

Every brand must keep an eye on the basics. That starts with understanding the consumer, their unmet needs and the brand’s ability to credibly address them . That means that many brands just don’t need a purpose – they can be the other things that consumers really want them to be.

Don’t confuse “Brands with purpose” with “Brands with Values” or “Brands with Empathy”

Brands with purpose are not brands with values. They each have their own swimming lanes and strategies. Mixing them up creates confusion both externally with consumers and internally with managers. And that is a no-no!

Brands with purpose promote the social or environmental well-being of humanity – usually non-contentious issues whose time has come. “Brands with Values,” on the other hand, make a promise to share the same values as their consumers around what is morally right or wrong. They wallow in controversy.

Unilever’s “Ben & Jerry’s” is a brand with values. It waded unapologetically into the polemics surrounding the Arab-Israel conflict when it decided to stop selling its ice-cream in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. These brands are controversial and have a following of consumers that are enduringly loyal and others that want to rip their heads off. They reflect a point of view.

Brands with purpose are also distinct from brands with empathy, which establish a bond with the consumer by understanding their angst and seeing the world through their eyes. They too may or may not have a social mission although they often do.  Dove in our analysis is more a brand with empathy than a brand with purpose.

We will dive into “Brands with Values” and “Brands with Empathy” in future articles, but it suffices to say that marketers often confuse these with each other and end up diluting their efforts.


Companies are on to something with brands with purpose strategies. It is a new way to connect intimately with consumers and address their needs for social altruism, and in doing so, become truly iconic.

Yet, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip – and marketers must bring their best game in the right arena.