Purpose is today’s hot topic. But what is the purpose of ‘purpose’? What does ‘good’ look like? Where does purpose ‘fit’? What does it mean to Gen Z and what threshold do you have to reach for all concerned? In short, what is purpose and how do you get it right?
Purpose is discussed a great deal these days and with great confidence. But if you asked 10 people for its definition, you’d probably get 10 different answers. So who would be right?
On launching his book ‘Start with why’, Simon Sinek, talked of his ‘golden circle’ concept and defined an organisation’s purpose as their ‘why’, their ultimate goal and vision. He was referring to an organisation’s key point of differentiation, going beyond their ‘what’ and ‘how’, which isn’t necessarily about being a force for good. In fact, taken at face value, for commercial organisations, the ultimate goal is to maximise profits. So where does this leave them in relation to purpose?
Say purpose to a UK listed business and they’re likely to think of The UK Corporate Governance Code, with its clear and very particular definition of purpose. For the Financial Reporting Council, purpose is about aligning strategy and culture, as well as transparency and accountability. It is about doing the right thing, but not necessarily for the greater good. It’s little surprise that not just communications firms such as ours, consult in relation to purpose. Firms such as leading global law firm Allen & Overy do too and for them it’s about aligning an organsation’s purpose and values statements, and code of conduct, to their appetite for risk.
Nailing the definition of purpose is like nailing jelly to the wall. But McKinsey’s definition of purpose is closest to ours. It’s about blending an organisation’s core reason for being, its point of differentiation, with its impact on the world. And this reverses Sinek’s ‘golden circle’ from why back to how. This is because for Gen Z, they care how you’re going to achieve your purpose, because they want authenticity. Professor Bobby Duffy has written about how the latest adult generation has reversed the psychology of trust and entered the workplace inherently distrustful.
You need to be clear about what you mean by purpose, before you try to capture and articulate yours.
Some organisations talk about purpose, then fail to articulate theirs, instead resting on values and behaviours. If purpose is to capture an organisation’s impact on the world and its stance for the greater good, then it’s all too easy, say, for an engineering business and a consulting business, to share a very similar purpose. Or for one business and another in the same sector, to share a purpose that is almost identical.
It’s interesting an organisation in the tobacco industry, Philip Morris International is taking the lead, by embracing a purpose that is bold, ownable and through its myriad of apparent proofpoints, authentic.
Ultimately, purpose demands achieving the right balance.
Leading drinks business Diageo, unites its brand positioning and purpose ‘Celebrating life, every day, everywhere’. Well-framed and polished, the messages around differentiation and impact don’t always necessarily create the right positive tension. However, their ESG commitment is clear, uncompromising and with crystal clear targets.
Private members’ club, The House of St. Barnabas has a business model that is itself purposeful. Profits are ploughed back into the organisation, their staff include those that are homeless, and their impact report demonstrates commitment and measurable results in relation to breaking the cycle of homelessness.
But it’s Salesforce that perhaps best demonstrates how a commercial organisation can speak to its difference and make a positive difference too. Brand values aligned to positive change and a belief that business provides the best platform for change.
Many younger, more recently formed companies have a real sense of purpose built into the very fabric of what they do and why they exist. This means they can credibly weave it through every element of how they communicate. And it’s powerful. They’re able to talk about why they set up the business in that way. They’re able to evidence that it’s more than words: through what they do and by showcasing their credentials, such as having B Corp status.
But it’s not just for the start-ups. Many long-established businesses are also doing a great job of weaving it through all they do – from how they talk about their history; to how it’s built into the products they create; through to how they work with and incentivise their suppliers and partners to make positive change.
This won’t be possible for all organisations – it must be authentic and true to be credible. But if you’re in the position where it’s truly woven into all you do, then make sure you leverage this and weave it throughout your brand and in all you communicate. It will further enhance the impact of what you’re doing operationally.
Whether the difference you want to make to the world is core to your offer or not, don’t make it opaque. Surface what you’re doing clearly. It’s important and people want to know what you’re doing, so let them find it easily.
On your website, don’t hide it away and expect people to have to dig too far to find it. Consider surfacing it clearly on your homepage. Think about whether it should appear clearly on your main navigation (and avoid using a burger navigation for the desktop version of the website – so things are easier to find). Or bring it to life clearly with film.
We know that, for many companies, it can’t be absolutely front and centre of everything you do. You can’t claim that it’s your central raison d’etre – and it would lack credibility if you did. So what do you do to clearly communicate your commitment and tell your audiences about all the great stuff you are doing?
In this situation, we think it’s really helpful to bring all your content and commitment on these topics together in one place. It’s a powerful way to state your claim, to have more impact and ultimately inspire your audiences. Bring it together under a clear strategic and communications umbrella which allows you to demonstrate you take it seriously, to unpack the different strands that sit within it and to allow people to explore the work you’re doing in greater detail.
There are multiple definitions of purpose. But today, for most, purpose needs to encompass your organisation’s core reason for being, point of differentiation and your impact on the world. And you’ll be judged by how ownable and authentic your commitment is.
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