Why purpose is both opportunity and obligation

News and commentary in the marketing press over the past few weeks has shown that the boardroom now has its own culture conflict - purpose.

Those stoking the debate rarely arrive without an agenda, whether it’s an investor demanding change, a journalist chasing headlines or a leader seeking profile.

Many of the arguments ignore the complexity of corporate reputation and brand building. The fact is that purpose can be both an effective tool and a distracting exercise. Purpose isn’t the enemy, but the polarity of the analysis most certainly is.

Of course, we’ve been here before. In the early naughties a debate raged in the marketing community about a new fad - digital. Clients, creatives and commentators alike were quick to proclaim the emerging channels as both saint and sinner. 

We all know what happened over the next 20 years as digital moved from being a channel to a tactic to a mindset that no business was immune to. This isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of losers along the way, but its significance and permanence is reinforced by the fact digital transformation has sat as the number one concern of both CEOs and CMOs for years.

Purpose transformation should be seen in a similar light: a threat and an opportunity that can’t be ignored. The winners will be those that know how and when to apply it by recognising three key things.

1. Business Purpose isn’t optional

The British Academy defines purpose ‘producing profitable solutions from tackling the problems of people and planet, whilst not profiting from creating them’. Much of the debate has focussed on the first half of this statement, where purpose is seen as equally responsible for breakneck growth or underwhelming performance depending on your persuasion.

But it’s the definition’s second half that ensures purpose is here to stay. As our society’s values evolve, and as our environmental threats intensify, we will see that purpose isn’t a phase either. And the demands of stakeholders, employees and investors are enough to ensure that certain ESG standards are no longer negotiable.

2. Brand Purpose very much is

Conversely, adopting a brand purpose isn’t mandatory. It’s best viewed as a strategic choice that should be adopted if purpose is judged as an effective tactic to drive growth. That means answering five questions to determine whether it can deliver reach, emotion, distinctiveness, availability and attention: 

  • When a brand’s health relies on recruiting new buyers, can purpose drive our reach?
  • When people don’t think of us much, can purpose create emotions that make our brand come to mind more readily?
  • When distinctiveness improves the chance of our brand being recalled, can purpose provide us with memorable assets?
  • When our sales rely on being easy to buy, can purpose help drive availability?
  • When we need the attention of cognitive misers, can Purpose get us noticed?

Reviewing these questions and choosing not to build a brand through purpose does not make it unethical. There remain certain standards of inclusivity and sustainability that every brand should subscribe to, and just because many of these commitments aren’t visible to consumers doesn’t mean they shouldn’t adopted.

3. Purpose has to be done properly.

Conviction in a purpose-led approach can’t come at the expense of business fundamentals. Purpose won’t solve every challenge - just as it shouldn't be used as the scapegoat for poor performance when other factors are at play. Successful application comes down to a rigour and responsibility that asks not just whether purpose is the right tool, but how that tool should applied. Is it:

  • Evidence-based. How do we know this Purpose creates positive associations with our audience?
  • Brand-led. How do we apply this Purpose through the unique lens of our brand?
  • Impact-driven. Have we made a measurable different that justifies our communications?

Not every business and brand that makes positive impact part of their operations will reap the benefits. Just as we have seen throughout the digital revolution, the era of purpose transformation will see many expensively assembled mistakes along the way. The winners will be those with the foresight to grab the opportunity and the veracity to ensure that it’s seized the right way.


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