Have we reached peak purpose?


It’s quite possible that 2016 marked peak purpose. The year in which the idea of corporate or brand purpose reached its zenith from which its grip on the collective consciousness of the business world may slowly wane.

You see purpose has a rather patchy rep. For every Unilever, celebrated for their commitment to both corporate and brand purpose, there are many organisations that have a less than satisfactory experience in trying to define and deliver the purpose of their organisation to the wider world.

Indeed 2016 saw a number of brands fall from grace in the purpose stakes. According to Radley Yeldar’s ranking of the top 100 hundred companies for purpose, 28 brands fell out of the list in 2016. Organisations like Johnson & Johnson, Orange, Diageo and WPP all disappeared from the rankings.

You see, it turns out that doing purpose is far harder than Simon Sinek, who did much to popularise the concept, made out. It is one thing to hold a few purpose workshops and then bosh out a mood film and quite another to embed a purpose at the heart of the organisation. Purpose has to be something that a business sees as central to its future and not a set of pleasant words that burnish its present.

And all to often the blame for this is place at the door of marketing. The assumption being that if the marketing department or the CMO drive the purpose agenda then in some way the programme will be superficial. That it won’t live at the heart of the company and drive fundamental change but simply offer a veneer of corporate wishful thinking.

This is of course nonsense. For purpose to be successful it is increasingly clear that it must be driven by the CMO. And this is because, for a purpose to be taken to the heart of the business it has to be inherently commercial.

A great purpose is not one that aligns a brand or business with faddish social mores but one that defines the parameters of a brand’s business and the sources of its future revenue. It defines the point of that business, prioritises energy and investment and guides the innovation pipeline. Far from purpose making an organisation less commercially focused, it will only work if it is hardwired to commercial perfomance.

Your purpose may and indeed should be elevated and expansive, seeking to carve out a clear role for the brand in the lives of people and the wider world that enables it to escape the narrow confines of its category. But commercial it must be, because our organisations are at heart commercial beasts and driven by an imperative to survive and prosper. Unless a corporate or brand purpose clearly signals a means of prosperity it is doomed to failure.

And that task should fall to marketing because it is to the CMO that any organisation should be looking to understand the source of its revenue today, tomorrow and into the future. It is the CMO that is in the best position to understand the organisation’s duty to serve people and the way that this can and must change over time. And this goes to the heart of what marketing does at its very best in bringing together the needs of the organisation and desires of the customer to the satisfaction and delight of both.

Far from being obstacles to the success of a great corporate or brand purpose, the blend of commercial focus and customer understanding make marketers the people best placed to ensure that a purpose is instrumental and not simply ornamental.

This post originally appeared in Campaign Magazine

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3 Replies to “Have we reached peak purpose?”

  1. I think this is spot on. But I would posit another thought. In the wake of the success of Trump and Brexit, both based on very narrow views of self-interest, I doubt whether ‘purpose’ is as universally shared as many brands would wish. Sad, I know, but I really question whether people (customers) are in as harmonious agreement as to what constitutes good as liberals might like them to be.

  2. I agree with all of it, except for Richard’s insistence that living the purpose must be led by the CMO. As animation of purpose is everyone’s work, surely the chief purpose officer must be the CEO?

  3. Hi,

    I’m a bit late to the party with this post – but I think I agree with Jack. If it’s with the CMO to lead it there’s a danger that the organisation’s marketing comms will talk about the purpose but the rest of the business will fail to deliver it – and that’s always upsetting to customers and therefore a reputational risk.

    I absolutely take the point that the purpose should ideally be commercially driven. However I don’t think it’s a ‘one size fits all’…

    Years ago I worked for Bupa, and they work really hard to ensure their purpose/mission of a ‘longer, healthier, happier life’ is the reason for their existence. While a commercial organisation, they don’t have shareholders, so they can focus on their purpose and not be told by the market what their purpose should be. How they deliver on it is directed by market research/insight – but not what the purpose is.

    On the other side… The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) made me laugh a couple of years back when they (apparently) wrote to their members to say “we’ve sort of achieved what we set out to do… so what next?” – they definitely needed to be market-led about their purpose!

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