Purpose is not about being 'nice'

But it is about trying to change the world.

by Ben Hayman
Last Updated: 15 Aug 2017

It’s tempting to see purpose as just the latest incarnation of CSR, the ‘nice’ bit of the business, something that makes people feel good about themselves, but that’s hardly strategic.

But purpose has proven itself to be a powerful business tool in an increasingly competitive world, allowing brands to connect with their changing customers, to create value for their increasingly transient workforces, and to do some good in the world. It’s not about being nice, it’s about building strong, relevant businesses.

Look at strong, contemporary brands like Patagonia, TOMS and Tesla. People love these companies, which grow profits while doing good. They have fans rather than customers. They are seen as ‘unique’ businesses run by passionate people. Purpose is part of their DNA, built into their business model.

Being a purpose-led business is perhaps easier when you’re small, but it can work for large, established corporations running big brands at scale. It requires the will to change, however, backed up by a clear plan of how to make that change. Indeed, businesses like Unilever are investing in purpose not because Paul Polman is a ‘nice guy’ but because he has a vision for his business and a strategy for his brands.

That might be alright for Unilever, but how do you know if you’re doing it right? How do you know when you are not just ‘being nice’ and are actually delivering brand purpose with real substance?

1. Your purpose is integrated into your brand and is driving growth

Increasingly, ambitious marketers are using brand purpose as a way of connecting with customers and challenging the businesses they represent to behave differently.

For example, Lynx launched a new brand positioning in 2016, supported by a campaign to help young men connect with the concept of the changing nature of masculinity. ‘Is It Ok For Guys’ was in response to a genuine customer need where Lynx recognized that it could play a role in exploring the answer to ‘what it means to be a man’.

The result was an ambitious campaign from a brand that had previously dealt almost exclusively in frivolity. The business saw a jump in sales and more importantly a reappraisal of the brand among an audience with changing needs and values. The campaign connected because the work mattered to its customers.

Lynx is a Unilever brand, and the business recently reported that its purpose- led brands were driving growth for the business. These brands delivered 60% of the company’s growth in 2016 and are growing 30% faster than the rest of the portfolio. These brands have purpose integrated, rather than just work that’s done ‘on the side’.

2. Your purpose is attracting the best talent

A focus on purpose will not only drive growth for the business, it will help protect one of its most important assets too – talent. Research by LinkedIn shows an organisation’s purpose is a deciding factor for more than half of UK professionals when they consider whether to take a job offer. That number rises to 56% among those aged 16 to 24. This shows how purpose can help reduce costs for businesses – helping to attract and retain people whose values fit the ethos of their employer.

3. Purpose is driving innovation

Whether it is creating new business models or reducing costs, purpose can help businesses to increase profits by changing their behavior.

Veolia, the waste management and services business, has reorganized its operation around the idea of the circular economy. The brand positioning and purpose is one and the same – ‘resourcing the world’.

This means that Veolia is creating new revenue streams from the by-products of its operation; encouraging team members to volunteer new ideas for how they could contribute and make the business more commercially resilient as well as more relevant.

Having a purpose is not about being nice. Used effectively and supported throughout the business, purpose can be a hugely effective platform for growth, allowing deeper emotional impact with your customers and driving positive change in the world at the same time.

This last point is critical. Purpose work has to be done with substance – a clear view of the change we are trying to create in the world and a way of monitoring, measuring and evaluating that impact.

Ben Hayman is Managing Partner of Given London, a brand purpose consultancy.

Read Next: Corporate purpose means nothing unless you actually do something


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