Define & Live Real Purpose. Beware the Bandwagon

I write this at the risk of adding to the daily debate on the subject of Purpose in business. Whether it’s here on LinkedIn, another new book or TED talk, the discussion around Company and Brand Purpose - - its definition, role and value - - is difficult to ignore. I believe this is good news, for the most part. Defining and living real Purpose is important subject matter.

If a company or brand can identify and live what it stands for and why it exists, the strategic focus will serve it well.

I worry, on the other hand, that with all the talk and despite best intentions, Purpose will be misunderstood, misused and worse, undermining. We’ve all seen marketers rush to embrace new shiny objects hoping they'll raise odds of success. BHAG’s, Manifestos and Mission Statements have given valuable guidance to many firms over the years - - when they were developed and applied properly. Other times the bandwagon effect proved regrettable. Energy was wasted, big stakes in the ground proved impractical, organizational disillusionment resulted.

Articulating a ‘legitimate’ Purpose is critical strategic work.

Living that Purpose internally and externally is fundamental to making it real and meaningful across an enterprise…or not. When it comes from a place of brand truth and is driven forward with real commitment, Purpose serves as a behavioral filter, a north star for brands and business.

Most companies are in business for economic gain. Their existence depends on it. When they look themselves in the mirror, delivering financial return to shareholders is a core goal. Today, many businesses are rethinking traditional ROI and committing to generating broader shareholder value ie. benefiting culture and society.

The most powerful kind of Purpose comes naturally and credibly from the Vision and Values of a company.

The company’s core beliefs and values are clear. Its ambition, role and reason for existing are inextricably linked and resonate. This kind of enterprise platform has the best chance of creating economic impact, societal benefit and real marketplace advantage.

When Purpose is disconnected from the heart and soul of a company it can be obvious, manipulative and likely to backfire.  We all know firms that adopt causes because they believe in them, others who lend support to create higher levels of engagement and appreciation. Supporting a cause is important and certainly commendable, but it is different from committing to a Purpose.

I believe companies that start with real Purpose, backed by vision and values have real advantages and they deserve to have those advantages. These firms are fundamentally built to do things differently from their inception - - in many cases, to challenge the status quo of their markets for both economic benefit and societal good.

Must a company be a start-up to have real Purpose? No. But firms that are created for a Purpose and behave guided by it, have it in their DNA. We know what they stand for and what to expect from them. Their point of view is clear and yes, they are often rightly rewarded with loyalty and trust. It's easy to point to examples over time because these brands define and live their Purpose. I think about Ben & Jerry's and Newman's Own, Seventh Generation and a wonderful young brand, Allbirds.

Must we be curing disease? No. Must we be doing wholesome good? No. And we don't need to be a B-Corp to be led with Purpose - socially and environmentally accountable.

The Purpose of a company should serve as its ultimate strategic filter. It should guide its actions, its behavior and whichever ‘cause’ it may choose to support. It’s difficult to embrace a new north star platform as an established firm. But big ships can be turned in new Purpose driven directions. Many established companies take the time and effort to re-define what they believe, what they do and why they do it.

Is it more difficult to create this focus across firms with broad product portfolios? Absolutely. But it is possible to create purposeful corporate guardrails that guide brand portfolios. I've admired GE's umbrella commitment to Imagination and Unilever's Sustainable Living Platform may become an example to follow.

The culture and behavior of a company prove whether that company is living true to its Purpose - - Otherwise, it’s just talk. Actions speak louder than words…and as my Father used to say, “Talk is cheap”.

I’ll finish this giving credit to Simon Sinek who is doing important work related to the topic of Purpose. It’s not enough for companies and brands to articulate what they do or how they do it. It’s the WHY that matters most. In his words, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

As you start your business, as you build your company, as you turn your ship…take the time to sharpen your Strategic Platform. Take the time to nail down as clearly and succinctly as possible…what you believe, what you do, what you stand for and Why. 

And then the hard work starts. 

Be ready to live your Purpose. Be careful of the bandwagon.

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