Purpose is meaningless without a clear definition

Why “WHY” is not enough

I’m bored with purpose. So much energy has been spent on books, blogs, seminars and studies about why brand purpose is important. And yet so little of note has been done about it — probably because we don’t even agree what it is.

The irony of adding yet another article about purpose to the pile is not lost on me, but it’s an increasingly important topic for marketers and I want to pin down a more precise definition so we can stop talking and start doing.

One of the more succinct descriptions I have found is: ‘A reason to exist beyond making a profit’. Then there’s Simon Sinek’s pithy and fashionable definition: “Why”. But those definitions are too ambiguous to be really helpful. It’s no wonder that the ‘purpose statements’ of so many companies are so broad, bland and indistinguishable.

Here are some examples:

Tesco: ‘Serving Britain’s shoppers a little better, every day’

Clorox: ‘We make everyday life better, every day’

Diageo: ‘To celebrate life every day, everywhere’

Britvic: ‘To make life’s everyday moments more enjoyable’

Is there a brand or company that doesn’t want to make people’s lives better on a daily basis? Is this really a purpose?

I propose a simple and actionable definition for purpose: a social mission. That is, a specific, not general, ambition to improve the wellbeing of people or the planet. It’s the difference between offering happier mornings and smoother skin, or “boosting self-esteem” (Dove’s social mission). The former are perfectly valid ‘reasons to exist beyond making a profit’, but the latter strives to help women realise their full potential — arguably, a more noble goal. That’s the kind of purpose that makes an admirable difference in the world and in people’s lives. Anything else is just a vague, contrived way of describing what everyone already knows you do.

Making money by making a difference

A purpose (i.e. social mission) becomes a suitable ‘brand purpose’ when it brings value to your customers and drives your commercial aims. There is no reason these things should be at odds with purpose.

Last year, Unilever revealed that, in addition to reaching more than 15 million young people with its self-esteem programmes, Dove had been growing consistently. Unfortunately, few established brands have found such a tidy fit between commercial and social aims. But a growing number of challenger brands are going at it with gusto — take clothing brands Everlane and Patagonia.

In an industry plagued by questionable labour practices, Everlane pursues ‘radical transparency’, ensuring the factories that produce its minimalist designs meet progressive labour standards. And this isn’t just a bit of righteous corporate social responsibility. The brand deliberately targets the growing number of people who value knowing its affordable, stylish basics were made without causing harm to others. As a result, Everlane attracted more than 300,000 customers in 2015, only four years after it launched, without any traditional advertising.

Patagonia’s stance leans more toward the environmental. Its “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign is the most infamous part of a decades-long conversation with customers about the connection between people, product and nature. Like Everlane, its emphasis on simplicity, utility and durability — in stark contrast to the wider apparel industry’s obsession with trends and seasonality — sends a message about the quality of its garments. Not surprisingly, people bought the jacket (so to speak) in droves.

It seems almost an afterthought that Patagonia donates at least 1% of sales to global grassroots environmental groups. And that’s how it should be — as a measure of ‘purpose’, corporate philanthropy and CSR (making money to do good) pale in comparison to running a thoughtful business (making money by doing good).

I set up Thoughtful and Thoughtful Works, an online lifestyle magazine and creative guild, respectively, to inspire more people to buy from purposeful brands and challenge more companies to act like them. Our purpose is to help commercial creative people make things that make a real difference… to business, to people and to society. That’s how we intend to propel the huge shift needed to get brands to make, and consumers to buy, things that do more good than harm.

Every day, we are discovering brands following in the footsteps of Patagonia, Everlane, Dove and others who recognised early on what brand purpose really means. One example is Public Supply, a US stationery brand that teams up with well known designers to create sustainably certified sketchbooks that help fund the arts in schools. Another is Upper One, a tech company set up by an Alaskan Inuit tribe producing critically acclaimed video games with the aim of preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous people.

It’s worth noting that purpose isn’t the preserve of sexy categories such fashion, beauty and gaming. Sugru is a mouldable glue on a mission to “help people everywhere start fixing things again” by curbing the need to throw stuff out. Between 2014 and 2015, it grew its stockists from 500 to 5,000.

Domestic-tech brand Nest aims to “create a thoughtful home that takes care of the people inside it and the world around it” by offering a smart thermostat that makes it easy to save energy. A couple of years ago, Google took notice and bought the company for $3.2bn.

However, as Nest recently found out when it shut down a piece of kit from a company it had acquired, a social mission doesn’t shield you from criticism. But that’s not the point; if purpose was a tool for risk management, the job of defining and delivering it would sit in corporate affairs.

The reason it’s such a hot topic in marketing is because it’s an opportunity for loyalty, innovation and growth. But only if it’s done right. And only if we actually do something, not just talk about it.

So, what should we do?

First: what not to do. Don’t bolt on a social issue that doesn’t fit seamlessly with your brand’s core strengths and your customers’ expectations. There’s no value in that. Don’t articulate the perfect purpose, get all excited, turn it into a big ad campaign and then forget about it. That lacks credibility. And, for goodness sake, don’t use the usual sanctimonious clichés about how your brand is helping make the world a better place. Nobody buys that.

Your starting point depends on the life-stage of the brand. New to market? Make a genuine social mission the heart and soul your brand. Want to ensure the future of your existing brand? Start with your customer, what they love about you already and how can you amplify that with a social mission.

Wherever you start, embrace a social mission — yes, a purpose — that makes sense for your brand. What’s going to make a real difference in the world? And what makes your brand especially qualified to do something about it?

For example, Method is on a mission “to inspire a happy and healthy home revolution”. What does this mean? It makes household cleaning products that are much safer for people, pets and the planet than the industry norm.

Make sure your mission is marketable. How is your customer going to directly benefit from your crusade? It’s not enough to make things better halfway across the globe if you’re not making your customer’s life better (in some specific, tangible, desirable way) closer to home.

Back to Method. Its non-toxic and biodegradable products aren’t just nice for the environment, they smell nicer and are less harmful to the households that use them. And, most important for driving purchase, they work. That’s how the Method became one of the fastest-growing companies in the US within five years of its founding.

Most importantly, reflect your purpose across everything you do, not just your product and certainly not just your advertising. True purpose starts at the uppermost reaches of company leadership and spreads across the entire organisation, not just marketing. How will your processes and your people reflect your purpose, not just in policies and codes of practice but in day-to-day actions and decision-making?

Method’s quirky, colourful bottles don’t just stand out on the shelf. Its recycled and recyclable packaging lists all the ingredients inside, with detailed information available on its website. The brand doesn’t stop at articulating some vague high-level values and communicating those to staff. It promotes an energetic and optimistic “people against dirty” culture among employees, as well as its growing fan base of users.

Through a galvanising, relevant and credible purpose, brands such as Method are beginning to pose a serious challenge to incumbents, with scores of plucky, purposeful start-ups rising up the ranks. They have one key, counter-intuitive advantage: unlike more established brands, they don’t already have a captive market. For them, being mission-driven is no excuse not to think carefully about how they’re going to deliver customer value and build a commercially successful brand. True, they don’t have the baggage of a big corporate, but that didn’t stop Dove, which launched its “Campaign for Real Beauty” after five decades on the market.

What do all these thoughtful, purposeful brands, big and small, have in common? They’re great brand marketers. And it’s nothing to do with advertising or reputation management — most of them have little or no ad budget, let alone a corporate affairs department. Instead, they focus on creating something of meaningful value for which there’s a market and an opportunity for growth.

‘Marketing for good’, a phrase often used in the same breath as ‘brand purpose’, doesn’t mean donating your time and skills to a charity. You don’t have to work at Greenpeace to do it. You just have to think about the social change you can drive, what’s in it for your customer, and how you’re going to make it profitable. Gather up all your marketing skill and talent, and unleash it on a worthwhile cause, right where you are. Easier said than done, but we need to stop talking and start doing.

A purpose isn’t a glib statement to be drafted in PowerPoint, slapped on a website and printed for a plaque in reception. It’s a social mission that serves as an organising principle to grow in a market that increasingly demands more than the fleeting satisfaction of, say, brighter, whiter teeth or the vague promise of (sigh) a better life every day.

Of course, having a purpose won’t make you perfect. And it’s quite possible that having a purpose isn’t for everybody. But for those who crave a purpose, maybe we can at least agree what that means so we can get on with the business of making it happen.

Daianna Karaian is the founder of Thoughtful Works and editor of Thoughtful, bringing together commercial creatives and mission-led startups to make things that make a real difference.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Market Leader.