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The Purpose-Driven Brand

Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas

Adding a purpose or cause to your brand’s marketing is not a decision to be made lightly. There are many variables, and it can be difficult to accurately measure the impacts.

Maybe it all started with a book called The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren published in 2002. This religious book has been translated into more than 80 different languages, and more than 30 million copies have been sold around the world. Or, maybe it started in 1982 with the book In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman, who championed the role of values in guiding a company’s strategy. Or, maybe it goes all the way back to JCPenney’s Golden Rule.

No matter the origins of purpose or cause’ in marketing and strategy, the last decade has witnessed a profusion of books on the subject and the rise of a whole industry of consultants who specialize in purpose or cause marketing. This popular movement, if we might use that term, continues its upward trajectory.

Giving your brand a purpose

As applied to business, the rationale is that having a noble purpose or cause (i.e., “doing good in some way”) is good for one’s business or one’s brand. Much of corporate America, and many consumer brands, have bought into the “purpose” narrative and believe that brandishing a good purpose or doing good in some way (i.e., a cause) will boost a brand’s image and increase its likelihood of success.

Several major studies have been published to prove, or claim to prove, that consumers are more likely to buy brands that espouse a noble purpose or support a good cause.

The truth is, few if any brands have conducted carefully controlled experiments to determine if a purpose or cause actually provides any brand lift (i.e., an increase in sales over time, compared to the same brand marketed without a purpose or cause).

Moreover, most brands adopting some purpose or cause have not even conducted the most basic of research to determine if a purpose or cause has a reasonable chance of boosting sales of their brands. If companies are dead set on having a brand purpose or cause, there are research steps that can help them make good decisions.

Questions to ask

The first question is what purposes or causes should you consider for your brand? For example, if you desire to discover life elsewhere in the universe and you own a company that builds multistage rockets that search for life outside of our solar system, then you have a purpose. It aligns with your business, and you have the freedom to pursue it. You can stamp "We search for extraterrestrial life” on your signage, paint it on your trucks, put it on your website, feature it in your podcasts, and incorporate it into your advertising.

If you are not sure about a purpose or cause, are uncertain about what purposes align with your business, or you don’t own the company, then you might consider some marketing research to guide us forward. A recommended first step is an in-depth qualitative investigation of your brand to answer several important questions:

  1. What does your brand mean to users and non-users?

  2. What images, pictures, words, colors, sounds, smells, and emotions are associated with or linked to your brand?

  3. What types of purposes or causes might fit, or go with, your brand?

  4. If a purpose or cause seems to go with the brand, what is the rationale or the story?

  5. Can the purpose or cause be linked to your brand in some powerful and memorable way?

  6. Are there charities that align with your purpose or cause that might be potential partners?

Typically, in-depth interviews are the recommended research technique to do this initial investigation. Thirty or so in-depth interviews among members of your target audience, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes, would provide a treasure trove of information about purpose or cause possibilities, help you understand the degree and nature of alignment with your brand, and reveal the underlying emotions and feelings of your target consumers. All of this knowledge would help you screen and narrow down the possibilities.

After this initial qualitative investigation is completed and the in-depth interviews are analyzed, the outcome would be a number of possible purposes or causes for your brand, along with a basic understanding of how each could be linked to (or aligned with) your brand in some meaningful way.

These possibilities would be developed into purpose or cause concepts (similar to rough print ads) so that you can scientifically evaluate them. Let’s suppose you ended up with 10 unique purpose or cause concepts. These ideas would be screened via an online survey among members of the brand’s target market. Three hundred to 500 online surveys would be sufficient to identify the stronger purpose or cause concepts.

Let’s assume the survey results indicated that two purposes or causes appear to be strong possibilities for your brand.

Next steps

The next step would be comprehensive concept tests. There would be three identical (or matched) samples, carefully balanced on geography, demographics, and usage of your product category. The first sample (or cell 1) would test your current “product or service” concept without any mention of a purpose or cause. This would be the control. The second matched sample (cell 2) would test the same product concept, the control, but with purpose-cause A added, and the third matched sample (cell 3) would test the control concept with purpose-cause B added.

By comparing the control concept test results to purpose-cause A's and purpose-cause B's concept results, you would have a reasonably accurate estimate of the lift potential of each purpose or cause, as indicated by purchase propensity, expected volume and frequency of purchase, changes in brand image and brand loyalty, and alignment with (or fit to) your brand.

If the differentials between the control results and the test results (A or B) are statistically significant and in favor of adding purpose or cause to the brand’s marketing mix, then it’s worth seriously considering the addition of a purpose or cause to your brand’s marketing attack.

If the decision is to move ahead with the winning purpose or cause, a final research step recommended is to test the new purpose or cause in a limited geographic area (i.e., a test market). For example, you might choose four metropolitan areas within the U.S. and introduce the new purpose campaign into those areas (the test markets).  At the same time, you would choose four metropolitan areas comparable to the four test areas (the control markets).

Again, you have a control and a test research design. Advertising and promotional spending levels would be identical across the control and test markets. You would track brand awareness, ad awareness, trial, repeat purchase, brand share, actual sales, distribution levels, etc., across all of the markets to measure the positive effects, if any, the purpose or cause brings to the brand. If these test markets confirm the positive results obtained in the concept tests, then the purpose or cause campaign would be rolled out to the rest of the U.S.

The test markets are recommended as the final test. To advertise a purpose or cause message usually takes some media weight (i.e., ad spending) away from the brand’s traditional positioning and messages. Test markets are the best way to evaluate the effects of this shift in ad spending. It’s possible that the positive effects of a good purpose are undermined by the brand’s diminished levels of traditional advertising support.

A good example of a positive purpose or cause is Dawn detergent. Dawn is a powerful detergent for breaking down grease and oils, but gentle enough that it can be used on birds and animals in the case of oil spills. Dawn advertises this advantage, and donates Dawn detergent to help save birds and wildlife after oil spills.

It’s a worthwhile purpose or cause, it reinforces Dawn's product strengths, and it helps to build the brand's positive image over time. There are also many examples of attempts at purpose or cause marketing where the results are questionable. Honda is a great company, but its purpose or cause marketing is so diffuse that it likely has little impact on the success of the company. 


The addition of a purpose or cause to a brand's marketing is a major decision with long-term financial implications. It's not a decision to be made without careful research and investigation. There are many variables at play, and it’s difficult to accurately measure the potential impacts of a purpose or cause. A careful, test-as-you-go approach is recommended.

Image Credit: Sushiman / Getty Images
Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas Member
I am president and chief executive of 40-year-old Decision Analyst Inc. (, one of the nation's oldest and largest marketing research and analytics firms. We are based in Dallas/Fort Worth. We also operate the world's largest online consumer opinion panel.