Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. David Melançon will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 this week in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more.
Purpose is a big idea
That’s not a revelatory statement. Every person reading this knows it. Every company leader and brand manager has heard it and many of them are on it. If they want to leverage purpose as a big idea, they’ve parsed old mission statements, conducted consumer research, studied the competitive landscape, found the white space in the market, and carefully crafted and vetted a manifesto that outlines their take on purpose. Depending on the company, this likely leads to a philanthropic relationship with a cause that relates to their purpose, some inspiring language put first on the corporate website and then shared in an employee town hall, and possibly, a round of brand advertising.
What this doesn’t always do is answer the question at the core of purpose: why?
Purpose is why the founders started the company. It’s why employees show up and give their all, why investors invest and why customers buy what the company is selling.
It’s more than a product or a value proposition. It may end up on your website and in advertising – but that’s just how it’s talked about, not what it is.
Purpose isn’t something you find in a whitespace exercise, but something you unearth, articulate and then live up to.
That’s why it’s both exciting and frustrating to think of purpose as a big idea. It’s exciting because being purpose-driven makes companies better – it makes them more accountable to those they employ and serve; it makes them better corporate citizens in their communities and the world. But it’s also frustrating because as a marketing-only exercise, purpose goes from big idea to trend to overexposure to – the next big idea.
So, how should brand leaders, marketers and researchers think about and build real purpose?
First, we need to think of it the right way; since purpose is “why,” it’s the first step: a reason for being, a foundation to build on, an anchor to maintain grounding. Whatever the metaphor, purpose becomes the starting point. As such, purpose embodies a company’s intentions, aims and impact on the world. And if intentions and why are the starting point, everything else – what, where, when and how – flows from it. Purpose can guide how the business lives and grows.
The best example of corporate purpose is Patagonia. The company’s purpose is clear from the start: “We’re in business to save our planet.” They not only talk about it on their website and in marketing, but they also live it in all they do. It drives their product development, their human resource and supply efforts, and their promotional initiatives.
Patagonia is an easy company to point to as truly purpose-driven, but it’s not the only one. That said, there are many more companies leveraging the big idea of purpose as a marketing device. Some do it in obvious ways, but many seem to go into the effort with good intentions, even if they miss the mark.
When Gillette decided to take on the current cultural moment and launch “The Best a Man Can Be,” they were doing something that could be (or could become) purpose-driven. The brand’s film and campaign decried toxic masculinity at a moment when it mattered. And because the brand creates iconic products for men, defining masculinity in a changing culture seemed relevant and on point.
Clearly, the brand managers and researchers asked some smart questions:
- Does this topic matter to our customers? Do they have something to learn from us?
- Does Gillette have marketplace permission to address this issue?
- Is anyone else in our space talking about this — and can we “own” it?
- Is it the right time (culturally, socially) to do this?
So, why was the reaction mixed?
Why did women’s groups and activists question the authenticity or sincerity of the effort? Why did even those who work in purpose think the effort missed the mark?
Because even though it was a big idea, it wasn’t rooted in real purpose. The founder of Gillette built a product line and brand based on innovation and that had been the hallmark of the company for more than 100 years. Yes, they served men, so there was a link; and yes, companies can evolve in new purpose-driven directions.
To do that, brand managers and researchers need to ask different questions, such as:
- What has our purpose – as demonstrated and lived for 100+ years been? How do we evolve it into what we believe now?
- What do we – as a company – need to do differently to live up to “The Best a Man Can Be”?
- How can “The Best a Man Can Be” drive any of their product decisions? Given this stance, how do they rethink their own gender-based pricing, often referred to as a “pink tax” on women’s products?
- How will we change our hiring, training, policy or governance decisions based on this new stance on masculinity?
- How will we address our past and use it to inform our future – beyond a film and philanthropy?
As brand marketers and researchers, we’re often called upon to find insights that justify our company, brand or clients. But our responsibility is also to find the truth that can drive company growth. Purpose – the unearthing and articulation of it – can be that kind of truth, if we’re disciplined and resolute about ensuring it’s real. And that makes it a very big idea.