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Compelling Brand Purpose Must Guide Radical Innovation

Many of the issues aired at Sustainable Brands London recently present a challenge to brands to question how fit they are for the future. This is particularly true if we look beyond the usual 2–3-year vision and think about a 10–15-year perspective, when brands are likely to have to operate within a world where pressures  and opportunities  arising from social and environmental issues are more acute. There was much talk at the conference of radical innovation, and particularly of business model innovation. There were also many assertions about the importance of brands having a purpose rooted in ideals  a purpose related to improving life and preserving planet. However, it was interesting that there was very little talk about how purpose and innovation need to be connected. Yet this is critical to the likelihood of success both market success and the ability of brands to contribute to a sustainable way of living.

When examining whether a brand is truly fit for the future, particularly considering sustainability priorities, the temptation could be to focus too much on the details of the current product or service and identifying how the most material impacts could be addressed through incremental improvements. 

It would be better to interrogate all aspects of the brand  in particular, its purpose. Why does it exist? What does it really aim to achieve? Does it have a clear purpose at all  and how relevant and appropriate will this be in 10–15 years' time? How might its purpose be interpreted if we consider it through a lens that is wide enough to take in the broader human, social and environmental issues that will shape future lifestyles?

Framing the brand purpose clearly in terms of ‘Why’ rather than ‘What’ will force a focus on higher-level end benefits. There is increasing evidence that suggests that brands with clear ideals, beliefs and meaning linked to the achievement of an overarching purpose are more successful in connecting with their customers and employees than brands that limit their horizons to a definition of their product proposition. Such a brand purpose could provide both direction and permission for innovation, encouraging bold innovation that is not limited to incremental improvements of the current product or service.

Increasingly we will have to look not just at what the product or service is, but at how it is delivered, and this will lead to the innovation in business models, about which there is so much talk at the moment  whether this involves dematerialisation, sharing, new distribution systems or other models.

In many markets it will be challenging for people to accept radical innovation, but if the innovation is linked to social and environmental improvements, it will be important to gain acceptance quickly among mainstream buyers to achieve scale that can really make a difference. A clear and compelling purpose could be crucial here, to make the innovation appealing to people through the realisation that they share the same beliefs and values.

One of the most interesting research findings shared at SB London was BBMG’s identification of the "Aspirationals," a large segment of people found across the world who are materialistic, receptive to new ideas and offers, and also concerned about social and environmental quality. This group could be critical to the success of sustainable innovation. Aspirationals will be receptive to brands that offer them a way to reconcile their values and hopes  particularly if the brands engage them in an emotionally compelling way.

Dragon Rouge’s Brand Futures project, which we presented at SB London, explored the link between brand purpose and innovation by projecting six well-known brands into a sustainable 2030. We are convinced that it is more important than ever to ensure that innovation is inspired by brand purpose, and of course, that a brand’s purpose is framed in a way that helps it to be fit for the future.