Do Indian companies misunderstand brand purpose?

Most urban working Indians (unless you have been living under the proverbial rock!) have an opinion on Infosys and the Tata Group. Which is why, the very public founder/promoter - CEO spats were such a shock to the public. It went against the values of trust, reliability, efficiency and ethics that both companies stood for, its' brand purpose.

In today’s business environment, where reputations can be built and torn down in a 24-hour social media cycle, brand purpose is what can define a company’s long term image in a crisis. And it’s easy too take the eye off the ball.

This misstep by Dove this week, showed just how vigilant and sustained brand purpose must be. Dove has since apologised and pulled the ad that missed the mark in showcasing Dove’s brand purpose of #RealBeauty.

For Indian companies, is brand purpose still poorly defined?

Arijit Sengupta, vice president - public advocacy, The PRactice points out that, “ ‘Brand purpose’ is often correctly reflected in the life time value (LTV) of the brand. The LTV of a brand cannot simply be purchased or force fed by way of mass media. It is an organic process that needs careful and nuanced consideration over a significant amount of time.Marketers today are confusing intense media led narratives (read as noise!) as the bedrock of brand purpose.”

Sengupta cautions that to see brand purpose as a quick process is a mistake.

Examples of Brand Purpose

Coke – “Open Happiness” – Coca Cola narrative has been unchanged for the last 100 years.

BMW – “Joy” and “Ultimate Driving Machine” – When you think of a “drivers car’ – you think BMW. They make cars that are for pure driving pleasure. Most people own a Toyota – but dream of a BMW.

Apple – “Think different.”

Arijit Sengupta

He clarifies saying, “Typically Indian companies are not great repositories of brand purpose, barring a handful. The approach for most Indian companies have been sales led and functional. There has been a genuine lack of continuing narratives for most Indian brands and this has hurt us in the global context. And the results are there for all to see. No Indian brand features in the worlds’ most recognisable brand list. We are probably the only large country with large companies who don’t have a truly global brand. “

Adds Sengupta, “The problem area from a personal understanding is that of frequent changes in the life story of the brand. Even the two most successful and recognisable global Indian brands (Amul and Air India) have gaps where they have radically altered the purpose or ethos of what they stand for.  “

However, in the brave new world where the art of ‘pivot’ is celebrated, identifying and celebrating brand purpose is tough.

The CSR effect

The Companies Act 2013, laid down a criterion for a 2 percent spend on CSR linked to levels of turnover and net worth. This made India the first country in the world to make CSR mandatory.

While this has provided a framework to direct social activities, it has also led to a poorer understanding of how to achieve brand purpose.

Girish Balachandran, founder 'On Purpose' who has done work around communication  or childhood obesity for ‘Sesame Workshop India'  points out that, “ CSR is largely a compliance led activity, with lots of meaningless photo-opportunities, award exercises and a new industry for impact measurement and reporting. The minute we equate CSR with brand purpose, we're already diluting a brand. It then becomes a function, along with other support ones, with a functional head and a title, with little or no real influence on the business model or a reason for innovation and growth.”

Himanshu Saxena, brand lead, Edelman India “Ironically though, the consumer desire to buy or boycott brands whose social purpose resonates with the communities has reached an all-time high — as evidenced in ‘Edelman Earned Brand Study 2017’. So, far from being abused, the idea of brand & business actions based on solid purpose is still highly under-leveraged in India for not just winning long-term consumer commitment but also building an unfair advantage for brands.”

S Roy Kandpal, vice-president, Adfactors PR, agrees that brand purpose is in danger of becoming the latest buzz word without reaching its proper potential as a long term and best expression of a brand.

Says Kandpal, “One can't help but think that brand purpose is being proposed as an answer to rising distrust of over inflated brand promise and advertising. Brand purpose has become the ‘Purple Cow’ ( with reference to Seth  Godin’s book on transforming business)  of marketers and advertisers.”

How to frame purpose led communications

Weber Shandwick’s recent report  on ‘Inclusive Global Economies’ identifies a step by step process on planning purpose led communications:

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