Purpose is the new brand

What has been the role of the brand in 20th-century consumer markets is now the role of the purpose: the north star for both customers and companies.

Users and their experience have been at the forefront of the digital revolution for 25 years, as UX. Over this period, the debate and the practice have moved on to customer experience (CX), employee experience (EX) and brand experience (BX). To an extent, a good experience has already been commoditised through this process. On the surface — or the interface — many products today look and feel rather familiar. The newfangled desire to strive for purpose can be seen as a consequence.

The brand was invented as a differentiator in commoditised consumer goods markets. The purpose then emerged as a differentiator in commoditised customer experience markets. Similar to a brand, a purpose serves as a sign that points to a quality beyond the product itself. And like a brand, it’s the customer who defines the purpose, not the company. The company only serves the needs or wants of its customers. In the words of a recent study by our mothership Accenture:

“A great experience is defined not by what you offer but by how well you enable your customers to achieve the outcomes most important to them.”

Viewed this way, a purpose doesn’t transcend the customer experience paradigm, much like a brand didn’t transcend the consumer goods paradigm. But like brands transformed companies, purposes are about to do the same. This transformation could well be the next chapter of the digital transformation playbook. It’s about reimagining the entire business “through the lens of experience”. It’s about all four P’s of the classical marketing mix: product, price, place, and promotion – with price replaced by purpose, and place enhanced by platforms and ecosystems.

Redefining customer expectations

There’s no digital transformation without what Matthias Schrader called Transformational Products, in his book of the same name. He argued that in the digital world, product managers need to focus on the product itself, “putting the customer at the very center of the development process.” The great customer-oriented players like Apple and Amazon are the blueprint. They have created the playbook for digital transformation, with paramount economic success.

And they have redefined customer expectations across the board. Banks or airlines are now measured by the yardsticks of leading digital companies. If the experience they provide is not on par with Apple’s or Amazon’s, people see them as failures. Customers have seen the light, and now they demand the same quality from every brand or company they interact with. Customer expectations have changed, customer behaviour will change, where it hasn’t already. Business models are next.

It’s not the brand which owns the purpose

This year has sharpened our focus on what is truly important, what is essential and what is not. Health is the most obvious example, but we increasingly apply the same rigour to other parts of our lives. In his chapter for our new book The Great Redesign, Thomas Müller asks:

“Does the brand deserve a space in my life and in the world? Is the value exchange two-way? Is it doing something more than straining the planet? If the answer is no, then unsubscribe or delete. It has never been easier to do so.”

If the answer is yes, then the purpose is clear. And it’s not the brand purpose, since it’s not the brand which owns the purpose, but the other way around: the customer defines the purpose and employs a brand to serve it. It’s the job to be done. That’s an outside-in logic, as opposed to the inside-out logic that dominated the mass consumerism of the 20th century and still prevails in many companies today. While traditional marketing was about making people want things, marketing is now about making things people want.

Aligning entire companies

To do that, companies need to know what customers want, and what they need. At least in theory, every company knows that. But in practice, this knowledge is often hidden in silos, tacit understanding, different databases, or even financial functions. It can be hidden in plain sight, or it needs to be discovered, because even the customers themselves don’t know what they want or need. Steve Jobs famously said:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Innovation needs to dig deeper

This is innovation. It may start small, but it affects the whole company. This takes time and effort. It has a clear purpose. And it is still about the experience, but not in a superficial way. Optimising customer touchpoints is neither enough nor does it provide significant returns on investment. This game is already over. Innovation needs to dig deeper. It’s about solving your customer’s problems in fundamentally new ways.

Steve Jobs was obsessed with every detail of the customer journey, and with the whole ecosystem around Apple’s products. Apple and the other digital champions have defined today’s benchmarks and aligned their entire companies to deliver on their promises. For many, if not most companies this is still on the agenda. It’s not about digital technology per se, although it’s a tremendous help. It’s about putting humans in the centre, and completely rethinking processes as well as business models.

Photo by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash