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Crises make people question what they are familiar with and put it under scrutiny. What is truly tenable? What can disappear? The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the term »brand purpose« gaining a new significance, and the crisis also demands that it be re-examined.

By Lutz Dietzold.

Brands have indeed already considered their attitude, culture and reason for existence in previous years, especially after Simon Sinek’s »Start with Why« movement. However, this consideration of the »why« is now taking on a new, more radical dimension.

In recent times, many businesses responded to the question of »why« with stories of sustainability success or sustainability targets, such as an intention to achieve carbon neutrality. Be that as it may, an overarching goal of sustainability can today no longer be the sole generator of purpose, since sustainability is already established as an attribute of any serious brand in the eyes of consumers and stakeholders. Brands must now also define the contribution they wish to make in the life of their audiences in terms of providing a purpose. This brand purpose not only describes a brand’s justification for existence as it is seen externally. Neither does it only provide an internal sense of purpose so that employees can identify with what they do. The brand purpose can achieve much more than this. It can be the driver for upcoming innovation, the compass for a future brand strategy and the guard rail for brand design.

Designers have always asked about purpose

Design businesses and brands with strong design long ago recognised this potential and this design power associated with brand purpose. Braun, for instance, has designed »things of lasting beauty and enduring function« for decades. The brand itself refers to its quest to create premium, desirable and durable products as a »functionalist ethos«. Dieter Rams answered the question of the »why« by saying, »Less, but better«. What could make better sense?

Designers are educated to be problem-solvers. They follow a methodology that begins with them or another external entity asking a question. The ensuing process then answers this question conceptually and holistically in an interdisciplinary manner. Businesses can use this expertise even further when asking about brand purpose. True design icons were never made out of a desire to maximise profit, but rather out of a desire to provide an entirely individual and convincing answer to a given question. An answer that, while not necessarily instrumental in profit-making, instead creates value that people can use. Value that, in the best-case scenario, changes, enriches and advances society.

Driver of brand purpose: the digital generation

The question of brand purpose is therefore not a trend, though it is gaining a new sense of urgency – and not only because we must provide more radical answers in times of crisis. Digital transformation is also raising a new generation, and we would be doing ourselves a disservice to label its members as mere digital natives. This generation thinks digitally, while also heavily questioning meaning and being disruptive. It frankly expects that a brand will take a stance on community, social and environmental questions and that the brand will define certain values for itself, live them out and communicate them externally.

They need to do this too, since their young target market demands that they take attitudes. According to a consumer study by Accenture Strategy, 58% of consumers surveyed in Germany indicated that corporate ethics and authenticity help determine the decisions they make about a purchase. When Generation Z was asked, this figure even rose to 72%. Accordingly, brand purpose is also a generational question.

Digital transformation, with its new technologies and media, is creating transparency about whether businesses keep the promises that they make. Broken promises can be made public at lightning speed and can also be punished by customers just as quickly by making statements on social media. Likewise, this punishment can lead to rejection of the brand, with 48% of 25- to 34-year-olds in Germany feeling deceived by businesses at some point in the two years preceding the survey. Roughly over half then proceeded to switch brands.

Customers decide whether the brand purpose is tenable

Just as the brand purpose – the brand promise – must be honoured in practice, the brand experience must also be a one-to-one fit. Customers are sensitive when it comes to brand credibility and these days realise faster than ever whether a brand acts holistically in terms of offering, message, design and behaviour, and therefore acts credibly, in digital spheres and in analogue ones. The authority on the tenability of a brand purpose is, at the end of the day, the audience. The things that customers want and that make that purpose-giving contributions to the life of an individual will be the things that become established.

Learn more about the German Brand Monitor (Content in German language).

The author: Lutz Dietzold

CEO German Design Council

Lutz Dietzold, Geschäftsführer Rat für Formgebung © Lutz Sternstein
Lutz Dietzold © Lutz Sternstein

Lutz Dietzold (*1966) has been CEO of the German Design Council since 2002. Prior to that, he worked as a design communication freelancer and was managing director of Designzentrum Hessen (Hesse Design Centre), where he was responsible for the strategic reorientation of design promotion.

Grounded on his studies of art history, classical archaeology and German language and literature in Frankfurt Lutz Dietzold has gathered extensive experience of design, branding and innovation. He also has a special interest in promoting design and up-and-coming designers. In 2011, he became a member of the advisory council of the Mia Seeger Stiftung (Mia Seeger Foundation) and a member of the Stiftung Deutsches Design Museum (German Design Museum Foundation), subsequently taking on the role of chairman in 2020. He was appointed to the Dieselkuratorium’s Board of Trustees in the same year and is dedicated to strengthening the pioneering role of commercially successful innovators.

Lutz Dietzold is also working to increase the international orientation of the German Design Council and its global network of leading companies from industry and the business world. This includes setting up a subsidiary in China.

Lutz Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and gives national and international lectures on a variety of topics. He is also a member of numerous committees and juries and sits on the project advisory board of the German Federal Ecodesign Award of the Bundesumweltministerium (German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety).

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