Forget “purpose”, do this instead

A sad fact of life is that even the best ideas will often get warped and simplified to the point of uselessness. As concepts pass through the public consciousness, people will inevitably focus on their most “sticky” elements, slowly changing their meaning until they barely resemble their original definition.

For example, consider “integrity”. Integrity, quite literally, means consistent and uncompromising adherence to certain principles and values. However, for many people today it simply serves as a synonym for “good”. The reason for this, presumably, is that normally when we celebrate integrity, we do it when someone displays a steadfast commitment to “good” values. Over time, through repeated association, we bind these things together, leading to a change in integrity’s common meaning. Nevertheless, the fact is that integrity is in fact a morally neutral concept – just as applicable to “bad” values as “good”. ISIS, for example, undeniably has lots of integrity. But you don’t often hear people saying that, and so, by and by, we neuter the concept, and it loses its precision and meaning.

This may seem like a strange preamble, however, bear with me, as just such a fate has befallen the idea of “brand purpose”.

Brand purpose was, in its inception, a very good idea. At its purest level, it basically meant “the goal of a business aside from profit”. Naturally, businesses want to make a profit, but from the brand purpose perspective, this profit is a mere by-product of fulfilling a worthwhile purpose effectively. In other words, deliver value in the world, and get value back in return.

The brilliance of the purpose approach was that it gave businesses an alternative point of strategic focus beyond maximising profit. Profit maximisation, as anyone who’s tried it surely knows, is not an effective strategic blueprint, as it completely disregards the market’s role in your company’s success. It’s a “goal”, not a “strategy”. You can’t just cut costs, raise prices, and expect it to work. You have to actually provide value too – and if you do that well enough maybe you can do those other things.

Sadly, however, the meaning of “purpose” has now changed. Today, it is more likely to be used to signify the ethical commitment (some might say posturing) of a business – often in a manner completely unrelated to its actual market activities.

How did this come to pass?

Well, much like with “integrity”, the stickiest examples of “purpose” were delivered by brands whose purpose just so happened to be highly ethical. Patagonia is the ultimate example. They sought to set the standards for environmentally friendly businesses by “causing no unnecessary harm”, and came up with many innovations to that end which saw them rewarded by customers. Clear purpose led to clear business implementation, which led to clear value creation, and finally value return.

The fact that they did brand purpose well had nothing to do with how ethical they were – that’s purely coincidental. What mattered is that they had a clear strategic direction and executed it brilliantly.

However, over time, the sticky part of their legacy hasn’t been their use of purpose as a neutral strategic principle. It has instead been their use of ethics – something that is completely unrelated to purpose, but which we’ve come to label “purpose” anyway. The fact that there are many highly purposeful businesses that don’t have a particular ethical stance (such as Red Bull, Monster, GoPro, Apple, etc.) hasn’t prevented this redefinition. We now simply choose not to see them as “purposeful”.

The end result of this misunderstanding has been the sorry mess we see under the banner of “brand purpose” today. From the absurd (Starbucks’ claim to “inspire and nurture the human spirit”) to the incomprehensible (Verizon’s “Humanability”), brands spend a lot of time telling us how “good” they are, but give absolutely no specifics about how they deliver on this through their business operations. All contemporary brand purposes, completely unlike Patagonia’s, set no practical or strategic parameters for how they behave in the market; instead, they’re open-ended platitudes, which could apply to anything or anyone.

Now, there’s little point in arguing this. The purpose ship has sailed. It means what it means, for better or worse, and although it has essentially zero business use at this point, at least it encourages more ethical behaviour. Which is something I suppose. No, what we need now is a new word, one unpolluted by ethics, which can mean what purpose used to mean.

My proposal? Function.

Function, on a literal level, means the same thing as purpose. The thing that something is designed to do. Where its advantage lies is that it is, shall we say, less “purposeful” and more “functional”. It demands a practical manifestation. It’s hard to imagine a wooly or meaningless “function” for a business. You are literally describing what it does; what value it adds to the world outside of its profit motive. Naturally, there is no reason whatsoever why a business’s function can’t be something ethical. If you’re Patagonia, Lush, The Body Shop, Tom’s, etc. then certainly it is. But equally one can serve a valuable function without an ethically charged slant, as will be the case for most businesses.

There is no way that one could call “nurturing the human spirit” a “function”. Nor “humanability”. The second we put most brand purposes through the brand function sense-check, they wither and fall apart, proving that they were never really purposes in the first place. Function demands that a business put its money where its mouth is, and actually deliver something specific, tangible, and valuable – which in turn should be good for the world, for customers, for employees, and shareholders.

It’s not rocket science, none of this stuff is. But that hasn’t prevented things from going very weird very quickly. So perhaps something as basic as this is just what business needs. Something that it’s hard to imagine being warped or misunderstood as it spreads.

That’s the hope anyway. They probably said the same thing about “purpose”.

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