Project Description

October 2020

Making Brands Matter

James Myers
James MyersHead of Strategy

Is purpose running out of runway?

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

That’s what Simon Sinek says. And lots of people agree with him. Brand consultancies have been created with this philosophy at their core.

It’s a simple idea. And we all admire businesses built around genuine purpose – Unilever, IBM, EY, Patagonia, Cat. But the key word here is not ‘purpose’. It’s ‘genuine’.

Imagine you’re in a marketing department Monday morning meeting – coffee, croissant etc – setting the agenda for the week ahead. The previous week the CEO has caught up with his fellow CEOs at CEO world congress. He joins the meeting and says: ‘All those other brands have purposes, why don’t we? Let’s get one.’

It’s probably not that uncommon an occurrence. And the solution, of course, is obvious. A workshop!

Purpose – you either have it or you don’t

Now maybe I am being a bit philosophical here but surely purpose is something that already exists – it’s not something you can create. It is a company truth. It reflects the culture of the organisation. It may even have been something dear to the founders. Perhaps it’s the reason why they built the company in the first place.

When a company emerges from a workshop with a purpose it’s a bit like a mate converting to Buddhism (happens all the time). You have to watch for a while to work out if it’s for real or not.

Let’s assume the company in question is, in a word, ‘nice’. It has an admirable CSR program to which it has been committed for several years. It is ethical. It has an anti-slavery policy. Its carbon footprint is so light its supply chain merely kisses the sand as it skips across the beach. What does it do? It makes components for wind turbines. It wants to make the world a better place, more reliant on sustainable energy sources, make the world better for our children, the world is better for its existence.

Yes, along with everyone else in the renewable energy market. So do all of these companies have the same, genuine ‘purpose’?

If you follow the logic – and I have nothing to base this on other than a hunch – there are probably a lot less genuine purposes out there than there are companies. Do we need a purpose directory, a bit like domain register?

“When a company emerges from a workshop with a purpose it’s a bit like a mate converting to Buddhism. You have to watch for a while to work out if it is for real or not.”

The net result is that the majority of companies are simply making it up, and therefore exposing themselves to reputational damage. A purpose that is undifferentiated and lacking distinctiveness.

It strikes me that companies would be better off approaching the topic with a degree of separation. Separate out the CSR conversation from the purpose one. Perhaps own a purpose that is actually closer to what you do or plan to do (you have to future proof it). Again, I haven’t checked this with the purpose police but surely it’s OK to have a purpose akin to just being very good at making components with 0.0001% defects.

That’s the marketing bit over.

So why is purpose such a hot topic today? Because it conceals a more fundamental question. What is the purpose of business? Making a profit now feels like an unacceptable answer. Agendas around climate and inequality are changing the way we look at the value of business.

Understandably, given our disillusionment with politicians (in various countries), the view that businesses will be more effective in driving societal change is now gaining traction. But it is difficult to see how profit maximisers will be any more successful at doing so than vote maximisers, unless of course they redefine their purpose.

Related Articles

Related Topics