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Published January 21st 2016

On Purpose: Why Brands Need to Examine What Their Truth Is

Meaning, trust, purpose, reputation. What do these terms actually mean to brands? Brand expert Colin Cather discusses.

I love thinking about brands, and their purpose.

Or I used to, until the word purpose became so heavily-laden. Somewhere along the road, it got a capital ‘P’ – Purpose. Soon after, it got prefixed with ‘Higher-‘, like brands simply must have a Higher-Purpose.

A prevailing wind carried the scent of sanctimony. Righteousness. I think we lost sight of the purpose of purpose.

So, I switched to ‘meaningful’ for a while, but the Higher-Purpose brigade caught up with that one, too. Put a capital M on the front and weighed it down with their big green bags full of ethics and sustainability and goodness.

Meaning, Millennials, Trust

Perhaps this is what happened.

We got a bit of Millennial-fever and brand orthodoxy became about satisfying one prominent dimension of their generational expectations – the righteous bit. 

Put that together with real-world shocks of big banks and cars and mobile phone operators involved in some questionable activities, and everything got a bit frothy.

Purpose and Meaning became saintly, got wrapped up in Trust – with a capital T, of course. As if trust, in the brand sense, could only be about being good.


Now we’ve got monitors everywhere – Edelman’s Trust Barometer. Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands Index.

While these reports are interesting (like I said, I love to learn more about brands, so this is still catnip for me) they too often do that causation/correlation switch.

I see headlines stating ‘Meaningful brands outperform the stock market by 133%.’ Well, the top 30 are just wonderfully big brands.

Big brands get a big multiplier; but their route to getting big wasn’t necessarily by being meaningful, in the ‘wellbeing’ way it’s now defined.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 10.32.06

For brands, trust is about keeping your brand promise. It’s about being true to yourself. Just like with people, your friends.

We’ve all got a friend who’s questionable on the goodness scale. But they consistently make you laugh (entertainer brands), or fearlessly say what others are afraid to say (rebel brands), or get the drinks in (generous brands).

You can trust them to be themselves, you just might not ‘Trust’ them.

They get a reputation, just not a Reputation. Reputation. Why did that get such a singular brand-definition? It has become something inscribed on a brass plaque, to be buffed and polished, to be guarded and defended.

I preferred it when reputation left room for the “(s)he’s got a bit of a reputation” version.

What actually matters?

So, brands – as ever – need to examine what’s true about themselves. What matters to their consumers customers/audiences.

They need to connect the two with empowering stories.

Dove, Always, and Chipotle get to tell some great stories; about the beauty-myth, the gender bias, and risks of industrial agriculture. These are the right, truthful connections for their consumers.


But it leaves room for lots of other connections:

Apple: I trust you to make things so cool I want press my face to them and lick them.

Paddy Power: I trust you to make me gasp with your outrageousness.

Target: I trust you to get a cheap version of fashion quickly in my hands.

For now I’ve ditched purpose and meaning and gone for motive with a lower-case ‘m’. Well, at least until that word gets hollowed-out, lined with organically grown hemp and re-filled with wellbeing.

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