• Transform magazine
  • March 27, 2023


Five minutes with Martin Johnston

Martin Johnston

Martin Johnston, MD of creative strategy agency, Earth, talks to Transform magazine about the differente between purpose and brand as a system, and why ‘purpose’ is a red herring for brands looking to futureproof themselves.

What is the difference between purpose vs brand as a system?

A ‘purpose’ is an intention – a well-crafted, often lofty, description of what a brand sets out to achieve, beyond simply profit. It usually exists as a one-line statement that summarises an organisation's ‘why’.

A ‘brand value system’, by contrast, is based more on action than on intention. It looks at every aspect of what a business actually does and considers these many activities – operational and beyond – to be a part of the brand. Specifically, it identifies where these activities create value – for example, by benefiting employees, communities or the environment. And it analyses the full picture as a system, from the supply chain and HR policies to product design and accounting.

In a brand value system approach, the brand isn’t a wrapper for these activities, it is these activities. Which means that, unlike the ‘purpose’ approach, there can be no distinction between ‘what we do’ and ‘what we say’.

Why can purpose be a red herring for brands looking to future proof themselves?

It’s certainly true that any business should be looking for a reason to exist beyond profit. But future-proofed businesses will not define a purpose and stop there. Today’s – and almost certainly tomorrow’s – consumers are increasingly aware of the impact that the businesses they buy from are making on the planet. They are scrutinising brands more closely and becoming more sensitive to where claims and behaviours don’t line up. Defining a purpose that closely informs brand communications but only loosely guides the direction of business activity can, especially over time, open a gap between words and actions. These businesses won’t be excused by tomorrow’s consumers.

What are the benefits of removing silos and aligning social investment with business goals?

When social investment is confined to one area of a business, its scope is, necessarily, limited. Its impact may be positive, but it is restricted to the patches of activity that fall within its agreed remit. It is a ‘think small’ approach, and usually results in piecemeal programmes.

But when we take a brand value system approach, we break social investment out of its silo and align it with the overarching goals of the business – giving it a much wider scope. There is room here for bigger ideas, that can go right to the heart of what the business is trying to achieve. Instead of tinkering at the edges of social and sustainability-related problems, social investment can work a lot harder.

Minds from across the business can get together around one table, all with positive impact as their goal. Social investment becomes everyone’s agenda – so there’s less shoehorning and ‘getting buy-in’, and more collaboration, new ideas, and opportunities to creatively scale impact. Innovation happens by default.

Increasing the size and scope of a business’s social investment then has a knock-on effect for the brand. The social contribution the business is making becomes more publicly visible, because it is infused into all the business’s activities – so consumers no longer have to find their way to the CSR section of the website to learn about the impact the business is making. Now, they can’t not see it. This soon translates into more brand loyalty, recommendations from satisfied customers, and flows back into the business’s bottom line.

What is an example of a creative strategy that makes social investment count?

One of our most impactful projects began life as a brief to create a siloed CSR brand, but grew into much more. When Landsec, the UK’s largest property developer, approached us to help develop the CSR brand for their London Portfolio, we undertook initial research and quickly discovered their social contribution ran far deeper than a CSR brand could effectively capture. In fact, sustainability and social impact underpinned the entire business model.

Among other initiatives, Landsec had developed an employment programme designed to provide long-term opportunities to disadvantaged groups. They had also rebuilt the HQ for The Passage, a homeless charity in London’s Victoria. As we explored further, stories like these continued to emerge – in Leeds, Portsmouth, and other cities, too. As our awareness that Landsec’s social investment was so widespread grew, we asked them to consider a creative strategy that embedded social investment into the DNA of their brand so it could really start making a difference to the business – they agreed.

One of the areas that we anchored our creative strategy was their employment programme, which was addressing a growing skills shortage across the UK construction sector. Our research identified that one in five workers in the sector was approaching retirement – which became our lightbulb moment. By highlighting the double win for the business and also for society, we were able to really make this specific social investment programme count.