A Higher Brand Purpose Unleashes Signature Stories

Few brand stories have the power of Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5.”

Signature stories help organizations with a higher purpose (a purpose beyond just increasing sales and profits) in two ways. First, signature stories communicate the higher purpose and its programs to employees and customers, an increasingly important and difficult job. Second, the stories serve to provide needed visibility, energy and brand enhancement to organizations that have trouble breaking through when talking about their offering.

Most organizations have realized that they need a higher purpose-built into or alongside their business purpose. Employees, especially millennials, need a reason to come to work besides increasing sales and profits and getting a paycheck. They want to respect and admire their firm and want their jobs to provide meaning in their lives. A higher purpose can address these needs—and bolster productivity—by offering an energizing common goal.

Customers, too, want to have a relationship with brands and organizations they respect because of shared values and meaningful programs that address social or environmental challenges. When the shared beliefs are strong, these customers impact the marketplace with their loyalty and support.

“When the shared beliefs are strong, these customers impact the marketplace with their loyalty and support.”

The challenge is not only to create a higher purpose with supporting programs but to communicate it to employees and customers. A signature story can do that better than a factual description because it connects emotionally which strengthens the message and relationship.

A second challenge is to elevate the visibility, energy and perceptions for the brand, a difficult and sometimes impossible task when the offering is not newsworthy, and very few are. It was always hard to make a branded soap, bank, or airline interesting.  In a time of media clutter and audience control of content, it becomes even more challenging. A higher purpose and associated programs can provide stories that can break through, can touch with emotion, can create high levels of visibility and energy, and can even inspire employees and customers. It is hard to create impactful stores in the absence of a higher purpose.

How Lifebuoy’s Higher Purpose Made an Impact

Consider Lifebuoy, a leading soap brand in much of the world, with a higher purpose of reducing childhood fatalities from water-borne illnesses by changing handwashing habits. Their “Help a Child Reach 5” program was rolled out with dozens of events and promotions. Schoolchildren in class, for example, received child-friendly materials including comics, songs, games and rewards, to help them sustain effective handwashing habits. The phrase “Did you wash your hands with Lifebuoy today?” was placed on over 2.5 million pieces of roti, a flatbread, during a Hindu holiday.

Videos were made of three villages that were early participants of the program. In one video, we are introduced to Utari, a woman who spends time near a tree. She waters it, dances next to it, shoos water buffalo away from it, places a ribbon around it and stays with it into the night when others are otherwise engaged. Why? In the middle of the video, her husband reminds her that tomorrow is a big day—her son will turn 5. Then we learn that it is a village custom to mark a tree when a child is born and to track that marking as the child grows up. After five years, many mothers have lost their child and have only the tree left. Utari is one of the lucky ones, and her celebration of the tree is a way to reflect that gratitude.

The three videos received over 44 million views and helped Lifebuoy toward its goal of changing the handwashing habits of a billion people by 2020, potentially preventing 600,000 child deaths a year. But the video also elevated the Lifebuoy brand by engendering respect, liking and a sense of shared values. The videos were powerful in part because they had an authentic central character, some curiosity-raising tension, and the backbone of an inspirational and effective program to tackle a global problem. Engaged listeners were directly connected to Lifebuoy.


The Lifebuoy Help a Child Reach 5 stories served both to communicate the higher purpose to employees and customers but added much-needed visibility, energy, and brand enhancement to a product that could easily be viewed as a commodity.

For more, see my latest book “Creating Signature Stories”.