Long Live the Servant Brand (And Goodbye Brand Purpose)

By Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder of change agency Futerra

Perfumiers are ditching the careful balance of musk and rose scents for rapid shipping of 50 tonnes a week of hand-gel. Couture fashion production factories (more used to sewing sparkly sequins onto thousand-dollar outfits) are now churning out basic blue PPE overalls for health workers.

Mattel is using toy-fabric machines to produce face masks and McLaren have redeployed their expertise in keeping race drivers breathing to build a cheap respirator for NHS staff. The list of brands being useful in the COVID-19 pandemic is growing, and their help is both needed and welcome.

Not a single one of these brands had ‘fight the pandemic’ as their stated ‘brand purpose’ even a month ago. One of the many things brought into question by the coronavirus crisis is the entire concept of brand purpose. In many ways, the current situation has revealed how that idea became corrupted. And there are some hints of what is set to replace it in the coming months and years.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working on brand purpose with clients for years and am immensely proud of that work. In fact, my colleague Freya Williams wrote the definitive book on how purposeful brands have consistently outperformed markets for decades (including during the last financial crisis).

But over the last few years, I’ve seen a once beautiful idea slowly become eroded by marketing-speak and ‘purpose lite’ attempts to cash-in on a lucrative trend. The woke-washing of brands popping up with ‘love is love’ during pride month, yet neglecting to implement global protections for LGBTQIA staff. Lacoste changing its iconic crocodile for embroidery of endangered animals, yet still selling deer-leather gloves. Audi splurging Super Bowl ad spend supporting equal pay, but with only two female senior executives.

This undermining of purposeful branding has real world consequences. In our research for the Consumer Goods Forum, we discovered that only 20% of Gen Z’s (the under 21s) think brands are making a positive change and only 42% of Gen Z think that brands even care about honesty.

Purpose, ironically, has lost its purpose. Or at least, the idea has bifurcated, with a host of smaller, start-up and larger ‘born-purposeful’ brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerrys who joined the B-corp movement and legally changed their status to allow purpose to come before shareholder profits. And, sadly, a larger number of brands who added a well-crafted purpose statement on top of business-as-usual, whilst changing nothing about how they operate. This quick and cute approach to pumping out a cool sounding statement is what has denigrated purpose into a brand asset rather than the business strategy it should have been.

Then Covid-19 hit humanity. The pandemic brutally revealed the fatal flaw in brand purpose: its self-obsession. Marketing teams searching for their purpose started by asking themselves ‘who are we?’, ‘what do we stand for?’ and ‘what’s authentic to us?’. Purpose became all about me, me, me.

Notice the problem? Purpose is inherently selfish – about fulfilling your brand’s own destiny and being important on your own terms. Which is why brand purpose is crumbling in the face of a health crisis. Put bluntly, when all of us are facing mortality and terrified for our loved ones and society itself: none of us gives a damn what your brand stands for. Your essence is irrelevant. Your carefully honed statement means nothing. Your brand purpose doesn’t matter. Because the only thing that matters right now, more than anything, is to be useful. The only question worth asking is today is: ‘are we useful?’

Our world needs what I call ‘servant brands’, and we need them desperately - brands serving society’s needs rather than what the brand pyramid suggests. We need brands finding ways to help, to be of use and to lift burdens from their staff, consumers and essential workers. We need servant brands seeking to fill gaps in government responses and pushing their innovations to the limit.

What does a servant brand look like?

  1. Servant brands are useful. They start with identifying what society needs most and then how their brand can serve that. Their brand is deeply invested in service rather than in ‘self’.
  2. Servant brands are honest. They say what they can but also what they can’t do. They share data, insight and solutions and speak like a human rather than with carefully honed legal spin.
  3. Servant brands are courageous. This is the hard one. They choose to stop making things, reduce price points, cut CEO pay, forgive debt and change their products if that is what is needed. They innovate to find solutions and prove that business is part of the solution.

Servant brands are, quite simply, more human. And if our post-pandemic world will be dominated by anything, it is humanity, compassion and service to others.

But is servant branding a crisis phenomenon which will return to self-obsession once the threat has passed? I prophesise that servant brands will make money during this crisis, probably a great deal of it, but without the performative profit-speak that often obscures poor management and lack of long-term thinking. But more importantly, servant brands are survivors.

This trend towards service isn’t Covid-19 created, it’s Covid-19 accelerated. The big questions about capitalism, the death by a thousand cuts of big brands by smaller disruptors, the rise of social entrepreneurship. And, of course, the big threat for which this crisis is arguably just the opening act – climate change – is coming.

These trends have been underway for decades and younger consumers have already been drawn to brands in service of the solutions rather than purpose-washing of business-as-usual. Your brand is called to service by this crisis and the ones to come. Within this decisive decade the only brands that still exist will be those people consider useful and necessary.

So, ask yourself: “what am I in service of?” I hope you like your answer.