Is it finally time to retire the word ‘purpose’?
Unilever has recently come under fire from a key investor for overdoing it when it comes to brand purpose. But Tim Jones, strategy director at Venturethree, thinks it has its place – just perhaps not as we know it.
Tim Jones thinks we can re-imagine brand purpose
Would this headline have been less appealing had I used the word ‘mission’? Does ‘vision’ tickle your fancy?
Toward the end of last year, ‘purpose’ had another moment. Often a bit fluffy, on this occasion the academic big guns were having a go. Field, Ritson, Sharp. My heroes. Yet observing from the sidelines, popcorn in hand, felt somewhat like watching Mum and Dad fighting.
Although an intellectual battle above my weight class, I would like to offer an alternative view of ‘purpose’ that takes the argument beyond activation and reminds us all that purpose’s real power lies not in communication campaigns, but as the tool for the effective creation, management and growth of organizations.
Don’t conflate purpose campaigning with purpose as an engine
The concept of purpose is too easily equated with the idea of social purpose – or, as Peter Field has defined it, “contribution towards one or more positive social impacts in the fields of health, the environment, human development, sustainable business practice or other similar areas.”
Social purpose is undoubtedly important and, at a time when consumer expectations are at an all-time high, a critical component for businesses to both consider and action. But treating social purpose and brand purpose as synonymous hamstrings the true value that purpose as a concept can bring. Sometimes they are the same. But that is rare and often unnecessary.
Purpose as the nucleus
I use the word nucleus very intentionally, because its definition mirrors how I think about purpose: “The central and most important part of an object, movement or group, forming the basis for its activity and growth.” Purpose should power everything. It is the single most powerful lever for organizational success.
And an organization is so much more than comms. It is its people, its culture, its management, its product or service, and all the other myriad layers that give organizations their own unique fingerprints. Place purpose at the center of these layers, and it becomes clear that its value is far upstream of the effectiveness of a comms brief.
Moving beyond the ‘why’
Simon Sinek’s concentric circles pushed the purpose concept mainstream. But despite the fact his simple “Start with Why” call-to-action mobilized a generation of purpose-fanatics, it is just the start. Entry-level purpose.
This is because, for a lot of organizations, a snappy, worthy ‘why’ can be limiting – and actually fail to tell you much about your purpose at all. First off – and this might really twist your melons – your ‘why’ might need some ‘what’ and ‘how’ in it if it is to be properly driven through every part of a business. Take Sky, for instance. Its purpose – “to bring better content and innovation to all of our customers, better connecting them to more of what they love” – needed such layered construction if it was to ever meaningfully drive decision-making at an organizational level. Decisions that have included the category-hopping and game-changing launch of a Sky Glass and led to Comcast valuing the business at $39bn.
Conversely, Facebook is a company which has a big ‘why’ – “connect the world” – but which arguably feels a little empty. This is because it is lacking a ‘why’ behind its purpose. Sure, it connects the world. But to what end? Why should the world be connected? Does it even want to be? Like many other product-led organizations, Facebook has fallen into the ‘what’ as a ‘why’ trap. Purpose is the missing nucleus. And, without it, the company faces misunderstanding and mistrust on a global scale.
Never mind purpose, what about belief?
So we have a why, and a what, and a how – and to avoid semantics, we try to boil it down to a belief. The nucleus of the nucleus. And there is no better example of how to do this well than Nike’s asterisk.
Nike has a ‘mission’ and a ‘purpose.’ But what really matters is the belief that’s driving the company forward – that if you have a body, you are an athlete. Go on Nike’s website, and you’ll find that it’s referenced as a sub-point, indicated by an asterisk. But it’s that asterisk that transcends – and empowers – everything the company does. It is that human truth, shared deep down by us all, that pulses through everything the company does. It is that belief-driven behavior, not well-crafted and effective purpose campaigns, that makes it history’s greatest sports brand.
Once you find your belief, as Nike has, it’s a race to the high ground. In each market, in each industry, there is a highest, most powerful belief that makes its owner almost unassailable. Airbnb is another example of a brand owning its category’s high ground; a belief that anyone should feel like they belong anywhere is a compelling human truth, and something few hotel chains could now authentically lay claim to.
Whatever you call it, the driving engine behind a business can only be powerful when it is driving business change at an organizational level before it is ever translated into a creative brief. As for how you measure that? We’re still trying.
Tim Jones is strategy director at Venturethree.