Purpose is broken – here’s how to fix it

This piece originally appeared in Campaign.

Every brand has been created for a reason. That reason can generally be found in the value they provide that people are prepared to pay money for.

Your local coffee shop, for instance, is there so that people in a very particular vicinity can get coffee. They are providing a piece of value, and getting commensurate value back in return. That, in essence, is business.

It’s also the purpose of the word “purpose”. If a brand figures out what it’s for, and strives to deliver it to the best of its ability, then it can maximise the value it gives to the world, and thus maximise the value it receives. In this situation everyone wins – the brand is focused on value creation and innovation, which is good for the customer, and the customer rewards them handsomely, which is good for the brand.

Whilst this may sound like common sense, most brands are very bad at it. If you ask them the point of their business, the majority will either give you a muddled response, or will outline a purpose that is already served by a host of competitors (“we make comfy shoes”, “we make tasty drinks”). This is why the growth of “purpose-driven business” is so important – it defines market roles and creates focused, remarkable brands.

And it’s why the distortion of purpose is such a tragedy.

As I wrote in Campaign a few weeks ago, a new generation of marketers has narrowed purpose to mean the “social good” that a brand provides. Purpose is now about either sustainability or inclusion, and has thus created the reverse effect it’s meant to have, delegitimising the vast majority of non-worthy brand purposes, and encouraging everyone to cluster around a handful of crowded territories. Rather than seeing these things as worthwhile hygiene factors that sit beneath your core purpose, they are now seen as the ends in themselves, resulting in some remarkable logical contortions as brands like KFC struggle to define themselves as champions of animal welfare.

It’s time to reclaim purpose and return it to its dictionary-definition meaning, for the sake of better brands, better marketing – and yes, a “better world” too – because the world would be best served by brands providing clear value in a responsible way; not value-less responsibility.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts on what makes a real purpose.

The first (and most obvious) characteristic of a good business purpose is that it be ownable and unique.

Think about it: if someone else is already offering what you offer, then you are by definition “purpose-less”, like a third sleeve on a shirt. Sure, you might argue that you are providing competition by throwing your hat into a crowded ring – and if expending huge effort in a race to the bottom is your thing then go right ahead.

However, most brands will not want to build their strategy around this. A truly unique and ownable purpose can create monopoly effects even within a crowded category. Apple play in some of the most competitive spaces going, but do you think their consumers see it that way?  Do you think there are really people weighing up the pros and cons of a Macbook versus a Dell? Competition is the price of a poorly written and executed purpose; not an inevitability of market.

Next, and where most brands really trip up, a good purpose must be objective. That means it mustn’t make any value judgement over whether what the business does is good or bad; it should simply state the facts, and let the public be the judge.

This is because value judgements are ways of wriggling out of having anything specific to say.

Take American Express. They say “we work hard every day to make American Express the world’s most respected service brand”. Does this really tell us anything? In essence it says: “we try to be good”. They haven’t carved out a role for themselves there, nor have they given themselves a platform for innovation and differentiation. That’s because they’ve leaned on value judgements rather than teasing out what it really is that makes them a great business.

Connected to this point, we can also see that a good purpose must be falsifiable. It must hold the business to account. It should be possible to fail.

Look at Patagonia, a brand that’s great at both the “worthy” and true forms of purpose. Part of theirs is “cause no unnecessary harm”. That is superb because they can screw it up. You could catch them causing unnecessary harm and they’d have to change to avoid being dishonest.

Now that is a purpose. Could you say the same about American Express? No, because they will always be able to claim they’re “working hard”. Their purpose can never be disproven and thus it can never really be proven either.

What you can see here is that a great purpose is not line a tagline; it’s not a snappy piece of copy to make your business sound good. It’s an existential statement that provides a blueprint for how your whole business works. If you have a good blueprint, then everything from culture to innovation to marketing becomes easy. You stand alone.

But without it, you’re just another brand cutting costs, cutting prices and scrapping in the dirt for slivers of market share.  And it’s going to take more than an inflated CSR policy to climb out of that.


Are you clear on your purpose?  If not, congratulations, you’re totally normal – but you might want to get it fixed.  Email us at contact@basicarts.org.

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