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Matching ambition with genuine action

Dennis Wong
Managing Director, Consulting Division

The Paradox of Purpose

Matching ambition with genuine action

In a world where functional parity has been reached, where supply is greater than demand and where consumers’ default assumption is that all corporations are evil, it is no surprise that “purpose” is a big conversation in business. To win in developed markets, brands can’t afford not to have one.

But there is a growing cynicism around the merits of purpose. This frustration is felt by the many who have invested heavily into developing and activating against a shiny new purpose for their brands, but are ultimately left with nothing to show for it three years down the track other than words on a page and perhaps some new ads.  

There’s no doubt that at best, having clarity of brand purpose is incredibly powerful. It can help drive deep consumers connection and build cohesion and efficiency in business…in fact we know from our Purpose 2020 study that brands who are perceived as having a positive purpose grow 2.5 times faster than those who aren’t.

But pursuing purpose-led brand positioning for the sake of it is usually a gigantic waste of money and time. It’s interesting to observe that when marketers reference the power of purpose-led growth, the same brands keep being mentioned. Nike, Lego, Dove, Harley Davidson et al. So why do only a select group of brands seemingly thrive on a purpose-led approach, while others fumble?

Right-sized ambition

Purpose scares commercially minded business people. It evokes ambitions of saving babies and other lofty quests that, to be honest, most brands have absolutely zero right to get involved in.

Perhaps an easier problem to solve is answering: what’s the greatest contribution your brand or business has a right to bring to the world.

It’s fine to have a functionally led reason for being, as long as it leads to action that people actually care about. If you are a bread brand in the supermarket, it is perfectly acceptable to have a purpose of raising the standards of supermarket bread if this is what you and your consumers most care about. It is only when you are genuinely committed to reframing opportunity beyond your existing category, that brands and businesses should look to culture as a reference point for purpose.

Do something

Marketers like the idea of purpose because it makes them feel better about their jobs. But having a purpose of sorts is irrelevant unless you’re prepared to live it through every action your brand or business takes. All too often, purpose manifests itself in business as expensive ads that simply state, rather than demonstrate, that a brand actually cares. And this happens because many organisations and their agencies are wedded to people, processes and tools that aren’t empathetic to a purpose-led growth philosophy. To realise the power of purpose, businesses must either build purpose with their capability constraints in mind, or ideally evolve capability to mirror the ambitions of their purpose.

More than marketing

Too many purpose ambitions are developed in silos, a tick-box exercise by marketing directors keen to put a stamp on their tenure. The reality is that identifying or distilling a purpose that will endure and create transformational change requires engagement both across the business and upstream. Purpose is bigger than marketing. It should inform everything that a business does, from innovation through to customer service, from partnerships through to people policy.

Patience, resolve and resilience

Purpose isn’t a saviour. An inspiring purpose can’t save a business from a rubbish product or service, nor should it be expected to generate an immediate return on investment.

The best businesses understand this deeply. Take Patagonia’s stance against overconsumption via the boycotting of Black Friday sales, or Nike’s vocal support of Colin Kaepernick. Both actions would seemingly come at a direct opportunity cost to the business, but they have enabled these brands to win the respect (and ultimately wallets) of an even greater pool of people through the power of shared values.

Mike Tyson once famously said “Everyone has a strategy until they’re punched in the face”. Committing to purpose as a long-term strategy is increasingly hard for big companies with an eye on quarterly profits. Resist the temptation to default to short-term tactics and stay true to what you believe.

The paradox of purpose lies in the fact that pivoting to a purpose-led strategy has the power to make or break organisations. And while purpose has never been more important, it has never been more challenging for organisations with legacy systems to deliver against.

Navigating this paradox successfully involves “right-sizing” ambition from the start, demonstrating bias to action, thinking broader than marketing, and having the patience, resolve and resilience to stay the course. If you believe in it and the people you serve care about it, and if you can deliver on it, growth will come.