I remember reading this article a while ago in which a local CEO was asked about his company’s purpose. His response: “To sell more of our products to customers!” As much as his reply made me cringe, it didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I am sure a lot of readers thought it was a perfectly normal reply. That is because a lot of companies and brands today really do not operate with any clear purpose in mind (apart from making money, of course). In all fairness, companies need to make money to stay afloat, so what difference does it make if they have a purpose or not? Well, when it comes to the long-term success of a brand, it actually means a lot. And as time goes on, it is going to matter a whole lot more.
A brand’s purpose is basically the main reason for why it exists. It is the key driver or motivator for doing business. Although a purpose can be just about anything, good purposes serve society and go beyond the archetypical goals of sales and numbers. Furthermore, purposes are long-term intentions (not short term initiatives), and successful brands and companies operate consistently with their purpose in mind. Nike, for example, brings out our inner athlete. Apple promises the best user experience through innovation. Crayola inspires creativity in children. Such purposes are shared internally as a company, as well as externally to customers, and drive everything from product design to marketing and customer experiences. And yes, when done right, a good purpose can lead to incredible profits. However, it is not the reason why they exist (I hope the CEO from earlier has understood the difference by now).
You would imagine that every company on Earth has a purpose (beyond profit); but you would be surprised. According to a study, only 46% of companies today believe they operate with a clear purpose. That is usually because firstly (as was the case with the above-mentioned CEO), some companies have no greater purpose other than making money and hence they are purposeless. And no, placing corporate posters with your purpose plastered across your boardroom walls does not equate to having one. Secondly, purpose is usually poorly translated throughout a company’s hierarchy. A company founder, for example, may have started a company with a defined purpose but his or her employees do not necessarily share or believe in it. For purpose to work, it has to transcend throughout all levels of the organisation and motivate employees. It also has to be reflected in the way companies operate on a micro level – internally and externally. This is where the biggest disconnect usually occurs. For example, a brand claims to ‘provide the ultimate customer experience’, but fails to respond promptly to queries on social media. It happens all the time. Hence, the brand’s purpose gets lost in the plot.
Now that we have understood how purpose works, is it really necessary for a brand to have one? I mean, what is wrong with Mr CEO operating purely for profit? Brands sell products and services and customers buy them. It’s a win-win. No harm, no foul, right? Sure, there is nothing criminal about a brand not having a purpose; it does not make them unethical or evil. However, in today’s dynamic world of marketing, it probably won’t get them very far.
Firstly, with all the clutter, competition and limitless access to everything, brands have to create deeper and more human connections with customers to keep them engaged. Customers today care less about products and services, and more about the impact brands are making in the world. They are more aware and attuned towards how brands operate, and tend to remain more loyal to those that they can relate to. Dove is an incredible example. Instead of relying on communicating their product USPs (which I am sure are at par with competing brands), they focus on their purpose of helping women boost their self-esteem. Even though Dove is one of hundreds of beauty brands, it is one of the few with a strong purpose that resonates with their core audience. It is also the reason why it is loved by millions of women around the world. That is the power of purpose: to connect with your customer on a virtually unbreakable level. Doesn’t matter if your prices go up or if your competitors introduce superior products. When your customers believe in your purpose, they will stick with you through thick and thin.
Secondly, purpose is extremely effective in unifying companies and guiding them on which products and services to develop, initiatives to take and spaces to operate in. It gives brands and companies a clear platform on which to operate and helps align future goals with clarity.
Thirdly, purpose is extremely powerful in attracting, motivating and retaining talent, something a lot of businesses nowadays struggle with. Just like customers, research shows that talent is more likely to be attracted to – and stay with – companies that have a solid purpose. Instead of just working for a paycheque, a shared purpose galvanises employees to work towards a larger shared goal, which in turn results in greater individual productivity, ownership and job satisfaction. It’s the same reason why everyone wants to work for Google or Tesla – they want to be part of something bigger. One of my favourite anecdotes is when President Kennedy visited the NASA Space Centre in 1962 and asked a janitor what he was doing at the company. The janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr President.”
Although brands should ideally have a purpose from their inception, it is never too late to define one. Companies should think carefully about what they are best at, what they are passionate about, and the difference they can make in the world. Purpose should resonate with audiences while giving the company clear and thoughtful direction and be embraced at all levels of the organisation and infused consistently in all internal and external initiatives. Doing so will not only strengthen companies from within, it will also help build stronger (and more meaningful) long term connections with customers. This is even more important now as rising costs and economic uncertainty are causing both customers and employees to seek out other options.
Above all else, a purpose should be genuine – both in its adoption and its implementation. Audiences nowadays are smarter than before and are quick to dismiss brands that try to build loyalty through lip service. Brands should state their purpose and stick to their guns especially when times get tough; in fact, they should never shy away from starting a movement and enacting change on a bigger level.
Become something that everyone wants to be a part of. Lead with a clear purpose and let your purpose lead your brand to success.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Head, Interwood.