The CTA recap: Dr. Marcus Collins talks brand purpose with Marketing Brew’s Ryan Barwick

A conversation about how brands can “walk the talk.”
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Wednesday’s installment of our virtual event series, The CTA, featured a conversation about brand purpose with Dr. Marcus Collins, head of planning at Wieden+Kennedy New York and marketing professor at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

As you might imagine, a marketing professor talking passionately to us about belief and purpose made the event feel a bit like we were graduating from something. But his talk offered insights about what it means for a brand to have a purpose, how it can be carried out, and how it impacts consumer engagement.

Check out some of our takeaways below, and watch a full recording of the event here.

Flipped the script

Not long after Marketing Brew reporter Ryan Barwick started asking him questions about brand purpose, Collins flipped the concept on its head, arguing that “brand purpose” is a bit of a misnomer.

“As a business, isn’t my purpose to make money? So instead of using ‘purpose’ as language, I like to use the language ‘brand ideology.’ A conviction. A way of seeing the world,” Collins said.

A brand purpose or ideology, Collins elaborated, should dictate how a brand behaves in the world—beyond the assumed goal of making a profit.

Do consumers really care? Collins explained that, when a brand effectively embodies an ideology, people who share the ideology will gravitate toward that brand and use its products and services as a signal of identity.

“Those branded products that the brand creates, they transcend value propositions and they operate at an identity-based level. They become identity-congruent artifacts, objects, services, that I use to communicate to the world who I am.”

That’s a phenomenon that can “command a price premium,” Collins said, as people decide where to spend their money.

“You see things like Dr. Bronner’s and Public Goods. These are DTC brands that people use because they’re congruent with their identity,” he said. “People buy Bombas. These are socks that no one really sees except for the top of them, right? But they buy them because they’re ideologically congruent to the identity...that people want to pursue.”

Keeping it real

In a climate where consumers value authenticity more than ever, a brand that professes to believe something better mean it. As Collins put it, “Do you walk the talk?”

“If a brand says, ‘We believe this. Our conviction is this. We see the world this way,’ its behavior should be indicative of that belief,” he said, using Patagonia as an example. The brand is known for its emphasis on minimizing its impact on the environment.

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“All the behaviors of Patagonia are demonstrative of that, and we say Patagonia is an authentic brand because everything it does is informed by that belief system, regardless of the context, even if it means losing money,” Collins said. “They’ll cut off a particular business opportunity or a revenue stream because it is ideologically misaligned with its belief systems.”

Last year, Patagonia joined a list of companies that paused paid advertising on Facebook in response to the spread of hate speech and dangerous content on the platform. The company tweeted Thursday that its boycott is ongoing, 16 months later, despite affecting “our business & the environmental NPOs that we support.” It added that “misinformation about climate change” is keeping it away.

A brand’s belief system is what gives it legitimacy to engage with the world and with people in authentic ways, Collins explained. That’s why it’s also important to know when to zip it.

“Now in some cases, our belief or ideology doesn’t really align to what’s happening in the cultural conversation. In those cases, we got nothing to say,” Collins said. “This idea of ideology—this isn’t just about some fanciful theme for the brand to have, to say cute things about itself. The idea of the ideology is meant to guide what a company does.”

This is also why Collins doesn’t think it’s an agency’s job to help a brand identify its purpose.

“The best brands, the strongest brands—they know why they exist,” Collins said. “At Wieden in particular, we’re not helping brands find their ‘why’...they already have it. Our job is to help them find their voice and how they communicate the ideology to the congregations of people who see the world similarly—how they preach the gospel.”

Big purpose, small purpose

Companies like Patagonia often get looked at like they’re “on the Mount Rushmore of brands that have ideologies,” Collins said, but not every brand’s purpose has to be to save the planet.

“It’s not about loftiness; it’s about truth. What is true? How do we really see the world?” he said, adding that it’s not about “what looks good on a slide. Not what looks good in a manifesto.”

Collins recalled handling an account for State Farm for four years. That company’s stated mission is to “help manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected, and realize their dreams.”

“State Farm believes that,” Collins said. “Yeah, they cover your stuff. That’s what they functionally do. But why they exist—their belief, their ideology—is to help people.”

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