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What’s the purpose of purpose?



There’s been a lot in the press recently about purpose. Some even questioning, well, its purpose. No doubt this has been amplified by the pandemic – for many, the biggest seismic shift in our lifetime. It’s entirely natural for people to reassess the past year or so, to try and make sense of what it means for work and life. And question why they do what they do? Meanwhile, organisations and brands are still falling over themselves to find their purpose. Why?


Many have done an admirable job to adapt to the pandemic - my local brewery’s drive-thru was a personal highlight – but above all they’ve been trying to survive, create meaning and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world for their customers. And do their bit to help where possible.


So as we all grapple with finding meaning and reminding ourselves of the why, or even what’s the point, organisations that have a clear, authentic and well-articulated purpose that chimes with their customers’ beliefs, are all the more stronger for it. But they need to tread carefully.


The emperor’s newish clothes?

It’s easy to think of purpose as a (relatively) shiny new toy in the box. We love that in our industry. The origins of purpose have been hotly contested but by common consensus, it was around the start of the last decade as we emerged from another crisis, a global financial one. The bankers got bashed, and businesses set about finding a new ‘Purpose’. One that does good and still makes money.


Yet there has been a degree of weariness about it in recent times. None more so than Mark Ritson and Google Global Marketing VP, Marvin Chow, who argues it’s time to ditch the ‘Purpose parade’. They have a point. It’s all very well having one but where’s the proof in the pudding?


As Chow argues, the past year has signalled “a wash of virtual signalling and bandwagoning, with brands saying they’re showing empathy and solidarity around Covid, but not stepping up to help solve the problem and move things forward”. And yet its crucial given recent research he quoted suggesting that only around a half of consumers trust companies, and 85% of those in Gen Z think they should stand for more than just making a profit.


Interestingly Google’s recent report, Sustainability and the UK Consumer, claims 72% of consumers say that having a brand’s values reflect their own beliefs is a deciding factor in what they buy*. And having a purpose that goes beyond making a profit is an opportunity to drive a meaningful connection with consumers – in other words, doing good is good for business - quoting a +30% average five-year compound annual growth rate for companies that have used brand purpose strategically.


So the question is, can you stick to your guns versus a profit agenda? Or is purpose not just positioning in disguise?


Founded from purpose


What really is purpose, and what is its purpose? One of the best definitions I have come across is by David Hieatt, creator of the Do Lectures – and he should know after founding two purpose-led organisations in Howies and Hiut jeans. “For me the most important brands in the world make you feel something. They do that because they have something in the world they want to change. And as customers we want to be part of that change. These companies have a reason to exist over and above just to make a profit. They know why they are in business. They have a purpose.”


The inspiration and benchmark for David, and so many others is Patagonia, the godfather of purpose. It was originally founded by Yvon Chouinard to make climbing products but also to support environmental causes. According to Marketing Director Alex Weller, “It’s the will of the ownership and it’s the will of the organisation to use this important platform as a brand to do more than generate profit.” Not only do they live and breathe their purpose and beliefs. They tell incredible stories about them as well that are authentic and compelling.


The London Coffee House



I was recently lucky enough to work with a charity that plays a vital role in supporting people who work in retail. As we all know, the sector has been badly affected by the lockdown and yet have still managed to do an incredible job in difficult circumstances. The Retail Trust was founded in 1832 at The London Coffee House, and as The Times newspaper reported at the time, Chairman Thomas Helps proclaimed its purpose was “to promote the happiness and interests of those engaged in the trade, whose industry, integrity and character were too often insufficient to rescue them from suffering and want.”


A browse through the archives helped unearth this gem, but from speaking to everyone within the Trust and the people it supports, this was a purpose with a very strong, authentic foundation. And one so closely intertwined with its beliefs, brought to life every day in the activities they actually do. What was also interesting, is that over the years this pioneering spirit of philanthropy has been carried forward by new custodians such as Peter R Jones, William & Frank Debenham and Sir Hugh Fraser amongst others.


During my investigations into the origins of the Retail Trust I also came across a chap called Sir Arthur Helps, youngest son of the founding Chairman. Sir Arthur Helps was an early Cambridge Apostle, social reformer, literary figure, historian, Clerk of the Privy Council, friend of John Ruskin and trusted advisor to Queen Victoria. He was also author of The Claims of Labour (1845), valued by many Victorians as it challenged the discursive dimensions of the field of the political economy.


In essence, he was interested in bettering the conditions of workers and argued it was incumbent on employers to worry about leisure time of their employees, and that the working day ought to end much earlier so workers would have the time to enjoy their lives. This was the foundations of the Benthamite doctrine of utilitarianism - that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness, not just of the performer of the action but also everyone effected by it. In other words the opposite of egoism, or a person pursuing self-interest.


The point here is that purpose is not a new thing. It’s been around since pre-Victorian era and can probably be traced back even further. But essentially the principles remain the same.


Purpose vs profit


Now you could argue that if you’re a charity it’s easier to put purpose over profit. I’d say the scrutiny over making every penny count is even greater. And as we can see with Patagonia and Hiut, it is possible to have a purpose, still make a profit and back up your words with actions. Whilst managing to keep creativity at the heart of what you do. The mistake is thinking it’s easy. It has to be baked into the organisation and authentically elevated by marketing. Not the other way round.


If you’re sitting there agonising about your brand’s purpose, does it, or even should it have one, it’s worth considering the following:


1. Does the organisation have a purpose originated by its founders? You may have to do some digging around to uncover if one exists but if it does, cherish it.

2. If not, speak to customers and frontline staff about what is the change you are making. You’ll often find out some things you may not from just speaking to senior management.

3. Is it truly authentic and can it be a beacon of consistency throughout everything you do? In other words, can you back up words with actions. If not, be careful.

4. If you have a clear, emotive purpose, romance it through authentic storytelling.

5. If you truly live and breathe purpose, it needs to be championed throughout the organisation either by founders, pioneering leaders or philanthropic partners.

6. Are you operationally set up for purpose and profit? They can be uneasy bedfellows.

7. How does your purpose align with your customers’ beliefs and needs? It’s easy to think and talk about yourself all the time but do they actually care? Find empathy with them first.

8. Sometimes purpose and positioning are the same thing. If your why is also what makes you different, happy days. But that’s not always the case.

9. Don’t confuse purpose solely with sustainability. The change you are making could be any number of things for the good of the planet or society.

10. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the right steps to having the right sustainable and ethical practices in place but don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the most important thing in your customer’s world right now. Yes, they like brands that share similar beliefs but above all else they love brands that fulfil their own needs. A recent Harvard Business Review refers to this as the ‘Small-P’ - the customer purpose – and claims this has by far the biggest impact on business performance and market leadership.

11. Don’t bang on about it all the time – in most cases it will not be the main reason customers choose to buy your product or service but it will reassure them they’ve made the right decision – for example, I went to my local brewery’s drive-thru during lockdown because I couldn’t visit a pub and missed that authentic, fresh tasting beer experience. The fact they now sell it in returnable flip-top bottles makes me feel better about that choice.

12. Don’t preach to the converted. Chances are the people buying from you already share your beliefs, as long as you consistently uphold them. It’s the non-believers who need convincing and more often than not, it’s not top of their agenda.

13. The proof is in the pudding. If you not actively ‘doing’ your purpose and just adding marketing veneer, then don’t bother. You’ll get found out.

14. Is your purpose supported by strong beliefs and behaviours – it’s essential the two are closely connected in order to make it believable, actionable and consistent.

15. Does it fit your brand’s personality and tone of voice? It’s easy to come across as worthy and customers hate that. But there’s no reason with the right personality you can still have fun and not come across all serious. Especially when you celebrate what you actually do, rather than just jumping on the ‘purpose parade’.


The purpose of purpose If you’re a charity, a business with a strong purpose at its heart, or simply looking to find one, there is most definitely a purpose to purpose. Whether its origins lie in a coffee house or not, it needs to be embedded in your beliefs, be a change people want to be a part of and be for the good of people and the planet. But like most things in life, it needs to feel genuine. Otherwise you compromise trust and as the recent 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reports, public trust is faltering across the board. And without that you have nothing. * Edelman, 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer


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