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  • Kathryn Ambroze, Michelle Niedziela, PhD (HCD Research) and Andrea List (Porter Novelli)

The Power of Purpose: A Case Study on Consumer Perception and Brand Purpose

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

As human beings, we strive to create meaningful connections throughout our daily lives. Supporting a mission beyond ourselves creates a sense of enjoyment and empowerment. Making small efforts, from putting a can in the recycle bin to purchasing cruelty-free shampoo, feel extra constructive in achieving a grander goal. Consumers expect more from brands than good products. Now, perhaps more than ever, consumers expect brands to be sensitive to social, ecological, economic, and/or health problems (purpose-driven branding).

HCD Research, in partnership with public relations firm Porter Novelli, sought to examine the true value of purpose on brand perception and consumer decision-making using psychological and traditional methods to explore what types of attributes drive certain behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions among different brands. We found that consumer brand perceptions differ greatly between purpose- and function-driven brands, and that purpose-driven perceptions drive different consumer behaviors.

Perception is Reality

Perception is everything. Consumer brand perceptions, its products or services, and its values impact how consumers interact with the brand. In fact, fostering positive perceptions can help brands build a “sustainable, loyal, and growing customer base,” according to Forbes (Duggal, 2018). Brand perception goes beyond the individual sale; it shapes the long-term relationships—good or bad—consumers establish with a brand. As a result, every touchpoint a brand has with consumers is an opportunity to steer their perceptions in a positive direction. Market and consumer researchers have been motivated to apply newer and more in-depth emotional and perceptual measures to understand the consumer experience, many tapping into psychological methods to dive deeper than traditional surveys can assess (Harrell, 2019).

Semantic priming is one such implicit method that is derived from a traditional priming procedure and implemented to measure consumers’ feelings (Neely, 1977; Greenwald et al., 1998). The methodology is based on reaction times in which two words (a prime and a target) are consecutively displayed, and the link between the prime and the target is investigated. The technique stems from the fact that perceptive judgment depends on an individual’s past experiences, and that the perception of a stimulus activates the associated mental representations. A target is identified more quickly when it is preceded by a strongly linked prime (e.g., Shelton & Martin, 1992). Using this psychological approach bridges the gap between the conscious and the non-conscious responses by identifying the strength of an association experienced among a set of descriptive attributes and brands.

For this study, eight different brands, or primes, within four industries (food/beverage, quick service cafes, personal care, and outdoor retailer) were compared by 1,200 participants, with half the brands chosen for being categorized as conventional (function-driven) and half as purpose-driven. Descriptive attributes, or targets, similarly were broken down into being categorized as functional (high-quality, affordable, practical, reliable, and convenient) or purpose (responsible, compassionate, inclusive, ethical, and eco-friendly). These words were carefully selected to determine if brands with a stronger purpose association would inspire further action.

Figure 1: Implicit association responses for the purpose and conventional brands, categorized into fast, medium, and slow reactions. Attributes ranking in the 80th percentile or higher were labeled as high associations. Reaction times were statistically analyzed by brand at a 95% confidence interval.

As seen in Figure 1, purpose attributes have a stronger connection with brands recognized for actively engaging in meaningful goodwill. Purpose marketing has an emotional component that resonates with consumers by having a positive impact on the wider world. Based on significantly faster reaction times, participants associate purpose brands as providing a benefit to society. Further, the exit survey revealed that 78% of participants are more likely to remember a company with a strong purpose. Suggesting that not only do purpose-driven brands build stronger connections with purpose-driven words, but they are also more likely to be remembered.

Perception Drives Behavior

The responses from this study are a depiction of consumer perception of the brands, which can have a direct impact driving behaviors brands desire. Exploring how the brands can influence the consumer based on their perception gives insight into the following brand actions: purchase a brand, trust a brand, be loyal to a brand, have a deeper connection with a brand, and work for a brand. To understand the action triggered by certain brand sentiments, the research used Maximum Differential Scaling (MaxDiff) to differentiate the attributes tested through forced preference. Simply, participants had to select the most and least important messages from a set of various options repeatedly. Figure 2 shows the purpose attributes drive desired behaviors. Participants indicated purpose attributes motivated them to trust, be loyal to, work for, and have a deeper connection with a brand. Each of these actions demonstrates an intrinsic goal contributing to a relational dynamic between the brand and the consumer. Reinforcing the notion that purpose serves as a call to action for the consumer.

Figure 2: Maximum Differential Scaling (MaxDiff) responses exploring what brand attributes, functional-based or purpose-based, motivate specific actions. On average, purpose-driven drivers were more motivating or important for the non-purchase MaxDiff.

The traditional polling questions in the survey exit data also served as a telling indicator that purpose-driven brands have additional support over other brands. The self-reported data solidifies the effect purpose has on consumers, showing 78% of respondents reported being more likely to want to work for a purpose-driven company, while nearly the same amount would be more likely to trust (77%) and be loyal to (72%) that company. Additionally, supporting brands with a strong purpose ripples into other aspects of its business. For example, if a company was to make a misstep, 72% of participants were more likely to forgive that company, and 70% were more likely to defend the company if spoken about poorly. Learning how participants would react to disruptions demonstrates their alliance with purpose-driven brands and shows the attractiveness of purpose on human values. Having a greater purpose can guide a brand through hardships because of its strong foundational core message that empowers and appeals to consumers.

Why the “Why” Matters

Rounding out this research, participants were asked to choose between two brands from the same industry which they preferred, with one being generally considered purpose-driven and the other being more conventional. After selecting a brand, the participants were then asked to explain why they preferred their choice.

Purpose-driven brands were chosen three out of four times with a tie in the fourth case. Yet, participants struggled to explain why they chose those brands, often citing functional qualities such as the product’s performance, quality, and cost. When participants struggle to articulate exactly what they are feeling, it is often because emotions are complex and challenging to share (Harrell, 2019). The difficulty in explaining emotions frequently causes individuals to revert to surface-level features. The disconnect between self-reported reasoning and implicit responses suggests that purpose-driven features in brands include an emotional or non-cognitive attachment because it involves values that align with the consumer. It is the purpose which inspires and engages the consumer as a link between the brand and the consumer, fostering long-lasting consumer-brand connections and loyalty.

Building a Purpose-Driven Brand

Consumer perceptions are shaped by how they interact with brands, as well as the way brands are portrayed in media or reviews by others, across all platforms and communications. Having a consistent, core mission, which is authentic and well-intentioned, creates a deep-rooted connection between the consumer and brand. This purpose-driven strategy acts as a meta understanding around the big picture and helps brands engage with the narrative that the brand is just one contributing factor to the grander society. This research demonstrates how impactful purpose-driven consumer perspectives on brands are for driving certain consumer behaviors. It is this alignment that boosts a brand over a competitor, by creating a commonality in ethical values between the consumer and the brand.

This research serves as a clear indicator that purpose may originate with words, but if correctly implemented, has the power to translate to competitive actions. By cultivating a company culture infused with ethical initiatives into the marketing, messaging, and overall mission, purpose can enable brands to satisfy the needs of consumers while also fulfilling the yearning to make a difference.


Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(6), 1464.

Duggal, R (2018, May 29). The One Marketing Truism You Cannot Ignore: Perception Is Reality.

Harrell, E. (2019, January 23). Neuromarketing: What You Need to Know.

Neely, J. H. (1977). Semantic priming and retrieval from lexical memory: Roles of inhibition less spreading activation and limited capacity attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 106(3), 226–254.

Shelton, J. R., & Martin, R. C. (1992). How semantic is automatic semantic priming? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18(6), 1191–1210.



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