Brands can’t fake purpose

When hundreds of medical appointments led Marissa Hughes to the painful conclusion that she couldn’t give birth, she and her husband decided to adopt. Months later, they got the call that would change their lives. Their new baby was born prematurely and in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at a hospital nine hours from their Texas home.


Frightening as it was, Marissa figured, at least her employer would be supportive. If any company would show understanding and flexibility it was one founded by a mom who was so inspired by her own infant’s issues that she created a line of specialty baby clothes and built a brand around being a loving parent. 


After HR worked out a remote schedule for Marissa to work from the hospital, things took a weird turn. The CEO stepped in. She said Marissa needed to work from the office or not at all, forcing a choice between her baby and her job.  She was fired eight hours later.


Maybe Kyte Baby just made a really bad HR (and PR) decision but for a company founded to support newborns and their parents, this was a betrayal of their positioning. And their purpose. Sadly, they’re not unique in that respect. Too many companies see things like purpose as a marketing tool. 


Telling stories about your purpose can offer a clear light on who you are as a company and they draw attention to something you care deeply about. Patagonia is the gold standard of a purpose-driven company, and they are very clear about it: sure they sell $100 million in outdoor gear and clothing every year but they’re in the business of saving the planet. The reason it works is they actually back it up. When purpose is just a convenient hook to a campaign or story pitch, you’ve missed the mark.  


Survey after survey shows people want to do business with companies that have a value system. They appreciate brands that are sincerely powered by something beyond profit. But it’s that little word that trips people up, sincerely. You can’t skip over it.


Purpose can be formed, and lived, a few different ways. It may be centered on producing the best product possible. Or having a social impact. For some, its purpose is creating an amazing culture for their team. Which is where Kyte Baby seemed to live, describing itself as a family-oriented brand.  


Regardless of what your purpose is, it needs to be embedded in every fiber of your organization. When it isn’t, your decisions betray the words you type on your website and in your ad copy; you experience employee and customer churn at dangerous levels; and you end up on the Today show and in TikTok videos for all the wrong reasons.  


We had a client whose seeming reason for purpose was recognition, and they wanted to do the bare minimum to receive it. In today’s environment, that just doesn’t work.


Treat your purpose as an iron-clad agreement between you and your most important audiences: your team and your brand community. Use it as a filter that shapes your behavior. Does that decision reflect who we are as an organization?  Standing for something – whether it’s a social cause or a family-supportive culture – can’t be a marketing trick. And please don’t include sales and marketing KPIs as the measure of their value because that’s not the point. Purpose is why you exist as an organization, not why your customer should buy from you. Forgetting that could be more destructive than not standing for something in the first place.

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