Having a ‘purpose’ is beyond having a moment. Whether you’re an individual seeking a new way to find or add meaning in your life, or an organization trying to define what it really does, it’s clear that the idea isn’t going away.
It’s more than a fad. Of course, we at Brandpie have a vested interest in this, as for over ten years we have been helping leaders define their organization's purpose. And in doing that, we help them find and deliver transformative ideas that drive their businesses to achieve their full potential.
But more than this, we know that purpose as an idea for motivating people, organizations – and people in organizations – has a power associated with it that other similar tools might have lacked previously.
And part of that has to do with the language that a purpose is written in. More than a mission or vision statement might, a purpose statement can and should aspire to reach certain peaks of rhetoric – even poetry – that might not otherwise find approval amongst business audiences used to drier, unemotional and, dare we say it, unengaging prose.
In this series of articles we’ll take a look at what purpose is and can do for organizations, the language of some notable purpose statements, then pause to consider what aspects of rhetoric can motivate and drive change.
What purpose is
‘Purpose’ in a business or organizational context sounds like it is a new idea. It’s not, of course.
You can see evidence of what we might recognize as a purpose statement when you look into the history of certain organizations and brands, especially those set up by Quaker families in Britain in the 18th century, such as Price Waterhouse, Barclays and Cadbury – drawing upon some of the ideas and the values found within the religion to guide how the businesses operated.1
A modern example of a still-going Quaker concern shows how the idea of purpose is not new. Scott Bader is a global chemicals company headquartered in the UK. It was started as a traditionally structured business, but as the founder had converted to Quakerism, in 1951 he decided to reorganize the business to more closely align with Quaker ethics, a trustee model of ownership called a ‘commonwealth,’
“founded on the belief that a socially responsible undertaking cannot exist merely in its own interests. It is part of the whole national and international community and as such it has responsibilities which extend far beyond its factory walls.” 3
Even more attention has been paid to the idea after Larry Fink, the CEO of the asset management firm BlackRock, suggested in his 2019 letter investors in that without “a sense of purpose,” companies “will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”4
Organizations as disparate as EY, Starbucks and Roche have joined those such as Patagonia and Nike in using and articulating a purpose to help align and drive their corporate cultures and business activities to do more than simply make profits, important as that it is. It’s also gained a foothold in wider thought, being identified by political commentators such as Will Hutton as one of the keys to reforming capitalism in a positive direction.5
However, there is still a long way to go until purpose is widely accepted as a tool all businesses should use. According to research commissioned by Brandpie in 2019, only 22% of CEOs surveyed thought a purpose statement should set a direction for a business; 52% thought of it as something solely for the realms of advertising, branding or corporate social responsibility.6
Putting purpose to use
What role can a purpose play for organizations? At one level, it can function as a way of reconciling the difficulties inherent in balancing the short-term needs of shareholders with the desire of other internal and external stakeholders for corporations to play their part in solving longer-term challenges. A purpose can help boards and management move beyond simply making profits to creating and delivering shared value, as articulated and advocated by strategy guru Michael Porter. 7 It certainly also plays a part in attracting new talent, connecting younger staff and team members to the organisation, and in helping customers believe that brands are more ‘caring.’
There are some thinkers who suggest that purpose can be more than a simple expression of what a business is and does, but actually “a conscious expression of how an organization intends to evolve and transform itself.” 8 This in turn places a greater demand on the culture of the organization, forcing it to consider not just how it supports the business in achieving goals today, but how it might harness forces like technological disruption, (de)regulation and the need for greater diversity in all workforces to drive change that supports a new type of growth, which leaves the business completely transformed.
And the language used for this ‘conscious expression’ – how it sets and frames expectations – is crucial. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.
A tool for the long term, not a short-term fix
Of course, the idea of purpose is not without its detractors. ‘Big Business Has A New Scam: The Purpose Paradigm’, shouted the headline of one recent article, suggesting that far from being sincere, purpose was merely a shallow attempt to persuade millennials flirting with the idea of socialism that capitalism could still be trusted while
"make[ing] sure any change stays within the tightly bound comfort zone of the world’s most powerful executives… deflect[ing] attention away from the fact that corporations are driven by a compulsion to place profit before anything else and to do ‘the right thing’ only when it benefits the bottom line." 9
Even if you are persuaded of the power of purpose, its potential usefulness is being undermined by those who merely see it as another superficial tactic to be used in a campaign, rather than a driver of more substantive change. As Alan Jope, new-ish CEO of Unilever put it at Cannes in 2019,
"There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy.’ It’s about action in the world." 10
Action in the world in this case starts with understanding the purpose is a tool for the whole business, one that needs to be used visibly by the CEO, and that should permeate the entire organisation. Action in the world in this case starts with the language that purpose is written and spoken in.
5. Will Hutton, How Good We Can Be (Abacus, 2015); Hutton argues that the Companies Act in the UK should be reformed so that directors have a statutory duty to uphold a business’ purpose, partly as a means of protecting firms subject to hostile takeover.