The Sharp doctrine: piss off with your purpose

Did Byron Sharp really say that? No. But it makes quite a good title for a blog, I thought. And I didn’t just pluck it out of thin air. Because at the very least you could say that Byron Sharp ignores the importance of a purpose for a brand in his books and therefore undervalues it. And the fact that he doesn’t write about it in his books on growing brands, what can you infer from that? And how could you, or perhaps should you, view that in terms of How Brands Grow?

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Sharp Purpose

Written by Bram Jonkheer

Despite the fact that Byron Sharp doesn’t write about it, I have heard him say things about it. And because I’ve noticed that it’s a subject that is often discussed, I’ve taken the liberty of writing about it here.

Here’s a fitting question to kick off with. What about all those successful brands that do have a very strong purpose? Doesn’t that prove that a purpose is crucial? There’s no escaping the fact that there are plenty of examples of successful brands with a very strong focus on their purpose. In those cases, the questions you need to ask are:

  • Is that the main, or only, reason for their success?
  • Are there also examples of brands with a purpose that aren’t successful?

That’s how you should look at it scientifically. In line with how Byron Sharp naturally reacts. And frankly, the way he dismisses these types of assertions and hypotheses – if it hasn’t been proven, it’s not true – can be pretty annoying, or at the very least uninspiring. But strictly speaking, he does always have a point in maintaining this. To find out more about this approach, it’s also worth reading the article by Robert van Ossenbruggen in Eat Your Greens.

Take an example that fires everyone’s imagination: Tony’s Chocolonely. Let’s take a look at it as a successful brand. What is the most important driving force behind its success? Is it actually its purpose? Is it because it makes an ideal gift (entry point) for various occasions? Is it the timing of the claim? Is it because the product is physically so widely available (at the checkouts in many stores)? Is it the distinctive, unique colour coding? Or is it a combination of all of the above?

Purpose is a good basis for brand consistency

The way I see it is that brand building and brand growth are two separate things. And they are both important. A good purpose is by no means a necessary or sufficient precondition for success. But it can be an essential basis for it. Sharp does in fact refer to consistency as a necessary precondition for success. And a purpose is a good basis for the consistency of a brand. If every member of staff experiences the purpose and if all your communications are in line with it, then you will be giving the outside world a consistent image of your brand. Byron Sharp maintains (more or less) that having a purpose is very important but it doesn’t matter what it is. Huh? Come again? ‘Having a purpose is very important but it doesn’t matter what it is’?

Wait, isn’t that a bit off the mark? One brand is completely different from another, after all. You can’t just stick any random purpose onto any brand. That wouldn’t be plausible, would it?

Of course not. Of course it makes a difference what purpose your brand has, how distinctive it is, how deeply it is anchored in your culture, how credible it is for the market (in other words, how strongly the brand and that specific purpose are already associated in the consumer’s mind). The point is that there can be several different brands with a purpose in the same market at the same time, each with their own distinct purpose. All these different purposes will often appeal to lots of people and there will be lots of people who find multiple purposes appealing. So in that sense, one purpose is not necessarily more successful than the next. But what remains – in line with How Brands Grow – is this: it’s better if that purpose is already a good fit with the consumer’s memory structures. Otherwise you sacrifice consistency and it takes a lot more time and money to achieve the same thing. So according to Sharp, the success of a purpose mainly stems from the basis it creates for the brand’s consistency towards the outside world.

A purpose is also important for another reason: it makes a brand likeable and therefore increases the group of consumers for whom it is an acceptable alternative. And to borrow a phrase from our previous blog, it’s more important to be a good alternative for a large group of people than to be the best alternative for a small one. After all, alongside widespread physical availability, that is an important factor: people shouldn’t hesitate to buy your brand.

So having a purpose is important even from the point of view of How Brands Grow. But that’s not the same as being a love brand. Because the question is how much people really ‘love’ a brand, not to mention whether they are monogamous and therefore unable to ‘love’ another brand.

In conclusion, I would like to say that brand building and brand growth are two separate things that follow on from one another. Rediscovering and describing your purpose is the first, and growing your brand by building consistently on your mental and physical availability is the second. So they don’t conflict with each other, they complement each other.

Would you like to find out more about Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow vision?