46% of financial services marketers said that building a strong brand was their biggest priority.

Beyond the worlds of retail banking and insurance, it can be a real challenge to build a strong brand in the commoditised and often homogenised world of financial services. Products and solutions are often very similar across asset managers, corporate banks and pensions providers.

Increasingly, marketers are looking to ‘brand purpose’ to be the differentiator. But what exactly is that, and is it the silver bullet for financial services marketers?

In a recent commentary by the eminent Mark Ritson on the Colin Kaepernick Nike ad, he states that the ad isn’t about brand purpose, it’s about emphasising what the brand stands for.

Now, for any non-marketer, that would seem a bit contradictory. Isn’t what a brand stands for the same as its purpose? “We exist for this reason.”

Having been laughed at by all-knowing marketers for being so naïve, a non-marketer’s next conclusion would probably be that a brand’s purpose will be its ‘usefulness’. The ‘purpose’ is the reason customers use it, or engage with it.

Wrong again!

Brand Purpose, to marketers, is a relatively new term designed to appeal to modern consumers because the pervading view is that they will increasingly engage only with brands which are fully committed to making the world a better place. For most marketers this usually means backing an environmental or societal cause in order to prove that you care about a higher purpose for your company.

Today’s consumers do think doing good is important but in reality social purpose is still lower down the priority list than functional and emotional purpose.

Now I’m all for businesses big and small contributing to making the world a better place. In fact, as the balance of power shifts from our politicians to our global corporations I believe businesses have a moral obligation to do good.

But I also think marketers would be better spending their efforts on the first two definitions offered above – what your brand stands for and the purpose it serves.

Today’s consumers do think doing good is important, but in reality social purpose is still lower down the priority list than functional and emotional purpose.

Let’s look at the evidence. The most recent poll of millennial’s about their favourite brands that I could find, by an agency called Moosylvania in the US, has Apple at number 1, Nike at 2 and Samsung at 3.

Now look at these brands’ scores on EthicalConsumer.org. Apple scores highest of the three, with a measly 8 out of 20.

Unsurprisingly these aren’t brands that particularly shout about their social purpose. But what they do have is a clear functional and emotional brand purpose. They are helpful and they make their audience feel good. This is a great article summarising the real drivers behind brand engagement: the need to project an idealised version of yourself, driven by a mix of insecurity and narcissism that is in turn fuelled by social media..

Having said that, there’s no denying the evidence that consumers (B2C and B2B) are slowly becoming more conscious of the impact that their buying decisions have on the world around them and that this is a trend that will continue to grow.

And it’s not just about consumers buying from you. Recruitment and employee retention are two areas where ‘brand purpose’ has a significant role to play. Similarly, in the decision-making processes carried out by investors and shareholders.

Which is all good news for humankind. My advice is to think about this in the following order of priority:

  1. Functional benefit – If you don’t meet an actual need, give up
  2. Emotional benefit – Make a connection, make your customers feel good or reassured about engaging with you
  3. Social benefit – This is a value-add reason to believe, which will only come into play if function and emotional benefits are met

This isn’t new thinking. It’s essentially Maslow’s hierarchy. The social benefit is essentially a form of self-actualisation.

The other risk connected with focusing too much on ‘brand purpose’ is that consumers today are more cynical than ever and will see through any surface-level pretence that lacks depth or relevance. Two epic fails to point to are Pepsi and Lush.

There are examples of financial brands that have successfully embedded social benefits into their story, including Deutsche Bank and Lloyds Bank. I like Deutsche tackling the negativity surrounding banks head on with #whybanksmatter, while Lloyds have been tackling some of the weightier issues in society, including diversitynegative life events, and mental health, with subtly and taste.

And I think that this subtlety is key. None of the above are the primary messages of these brands, which would get in the way of the more important (for now) messages about how they are helpful and reassuring.

These subtle messages are there, beneath the surface, brought to life by engaging content, for those that want to go looking for them, such as the more conscious consumer, or potential employee or investor. This makes brands feel more authentic and more believable and gives them a platform to demonstrate that they understand their purpose and are willing to back words with actions. This adds value to the brand and depth to customer relationships.

These two brands have recognised that there are three tiers of brand purpose – the core ‘what’s the purpose we serve for our customers?’, and the ‘how do we make them feel good?’, which should remain the priority, and the ‘what’s the bigger benefit we offer the world?’ purpose. This third tier is important for some customers but not yet at the tipping point of being the most decisive opinion influencer.

The good news is that the brand purpose trend has led to most smart marketers looking once again at what they stand for, what they offer and how consistently and cohesively they can communicate this.

Kevin

BY Kevin Hearn

Kevin has over 15 years' marketing experience, most of that spent agency-side helping brands connect with their customers. He’s worked with some of the world’s biggest financial organisations and loves nothing more than sitting at his desk with a blank sheet of A3 and a brand new content strategy brief to solve.