Purpose Branding: Two Checkmarks Between Success and Failure
4 min read

Brands are fiction: they tell stories, and we like these stories. In many cases, we like them even if we think they are not real because they make us feel good.

Pepsi appeared out of place when it tried to appropriate a movement like ‘black lives matter’. It looked very uncharacteristic of Pepsi, a brand that has always celebrated the virtues of individuality. Social media gave its unfortunate verdict.

Similarly, CSR programs of companies often seem awkwardly bolted on top of what the brand truly represents. Women’s empowerment or donating food may not necessarily represent the purpose that the brand is investing in.

Thus, the desire to be purposeful can result in confusion.

We can resolve this diffusion of vision by looking at the brand as a fiction that people crave and then convert this fiction into reality.

Brands are fiction: they tell stories, and we like these stories. In many cases, we like them even if we think they are not real because they make us feel good.

Nike is about making us empowered athletes, and we like the feeling even when we sit on our sofa in our sweatpants watching a football game. Coca-Cola is about connecting people, and we like the feeling even when we sip a Coke at home in front of a Netflix show.

What is wonderful to know is that brands gain more value if they make their fictions real. When you get young people to leave the couch and run – as with Nike’s 2012 Olympics activation – then you make the story real. By being real it makes more impact and we love it more. Because it’s the same story, we can believe it. We thus expand outwards from a fictional brand idea (or a fictional brand commercial) to a real contribution in life.

Nike’s idea ‘Just do it’ can be elevated to a real contribution or role of the brand in life – ‘Nurturing the athlete in everyone’. This role of brands in real life is a passion for creating a  better world in a way where the brand can make an impact. Helping people become athletes in an other-oriented passion of Nike that is true to their capability, good for their business and positive for all people in the world. It is a belief that everyone can become an athlete and people want that too!

With this lens of contribution in life Nike can critically examine its products, its retail, its activation, its packaging, its pricing. For example, on brand activation,  Nike can say “I want to help women across the world, who have never run before, to become athletes, that is my role in life”.

Nike can therefore transform its fictive myth as a symbol of victory into a critical contribution in society, that of helping people become athletes. It can create purposeful impact at three levels: Personal, Social and Structural.

  1. At a personal level, Nike can customize shoes for all ages, genders and income levels.
  2. At a social level, Nike can bring women in emerging markets together to support each other to play sports
  3. At a structural level, Nike can create playgrounds and phone apps to help us become better runners and athletes.

Purpose branding works, hence, when it makes your own story, real. Therefore the key to success lies in: making your own story – check mark 1 – and making it real – check mark 2. Pepsi did not make their story real, and it was not the same brand story. They missed both check marks.

Today business and brand purpose has immense merit especially because we live in a post-image world beyond TV where people’s experiences, sentiments and recommendations shape the fortunes of brands.

Our belief at Innate Motion is that the world is full of possibility to create better value together, but the lack of empathy and human sense making, and also our inability to co-create and design for inclusion, stands in our way.

Brands can and do have the ability to make a difference to our lives. They should nurture and invest in great fictions that we desire. They should convert these sought after fictions into real, palpable, experiences that truly impact lives. If we do not tick these two check marks we are either creating irrelevant stories or merely purpose washing, not purpose branding.


Subodh Deshpande,
Partner & Business Humanizer