Why “purpose” is the new buzz word in branding
Within the last couple of years more and more people in business talk and write about the “purpose” of their company and how it creates meaning. Recently I’ve been reading articles in the ad and marketing industry where the term “purpose agency” has suddenly become the new buzz. One of my fellow members of the Medinge Group recently pointed to a consultant on LinkedIn claiming she was “the Worlds first” and only “purpose consultant”. Needless to say she is not the first, neither the only. What her title reflects is that it’s become fashionable to talk about the purpose and meaning of companies, organizations and cities.
When does a company create meaning?
But what is this meaning of purpose? When does a company create meaning for it’s employees, customers and other stakeholders? And if you are unfortunate enough to work in an organization where goals are defined only in terms of profit or other mainstreamed goals (you know it because they sound exactly like every one else’s goals), what do you do?
A few weeks ago I read an article about a newly started agency, who called themselves a “purpose agency”. The reporter asked: “What is a purpose agency?”. The self-proclaimed purpose agency then explained, that purpose is not just CSR (which is widely understood as doing good only to gain positive publicity), but about having a “purposeful” interaction with your consumers. The reporter further investigated: “What is your own purpose?” which the newly redefined agency had a hard time answering.
They were all about finding out what “purpose” meant. In other words, a purpose agency without a firm idea of their own purpose? Are you kidding? It sounds more like a classic ad agency to me – except for the fact, that any ad agency with a fair amount of pride and belief in themselves would at least talk about adding value to their customers in terms of sales, market share or brand equity through creative campaigns – some of the virtues of ad agencies since the days of people like Ogilvy, Saatchi and J. Walter Thompson.
It seems that everyone is suddenly talking about purpose. The purpose of the company, purpose at work, the purpose that any given product serves. More and more agencies have replaced “advertising agency” with “purpose agencies”. But no one – especially in the ad and marketing business – seems to know what this “purpose” is.
Purpose – a new advertising topping?
Just as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been used and misused as an advertising “topping” over the last decade, purpose is now the hip term being used as a neat add-on that will give your next branding strategy the right flavour. It’s quite the opposite of what purpose actually means when you want to create real value in a company or a city.
The Meaning Society
The time we live in now is what I call The Meaning Society. It’s a time where the vast majority of people in the developed part of the World are far beyond making a living, getting shelter and food and have a need for participating in a bigger purpose and creating something meaningful in their lifes, no matter if it’s at work, at home or when they travel. This has a huge impact on the way people respond to companies and brands. We try to navigate between brands of all sorts and make sense of them. And since most people in Europe and the US have become connoisseurs of brands we – knowing or unknowingly – try to define and use brands that are meaningful and support our sense of self and the reality or development we aspire to see in the World.
That goes not only for products (as has so often been described) but also for corporate brands (brands that are companies or organizations), cities and regions. Just as you try to understand the nature or meaning of people we meet, you try to make sense of any company or place you encounter. And that’s where the company’s purpose comes in.
First of all talking about purpose is not a new phenomenon. On a larger human scale finding the meaning of being (human) has been at the center of philosophy and literature for ages. In terms of business and corporate branding it has been an important part of defining strategy and identity, mostly talked about in terms like “raison d’etre”, mission and vision statements and brand promises. What are we here for? What do we do? Why do we do what we do? During the 80’s and 90’s there was more attention on things like “core competencies” and “values”. It was considered important to know what competencies helped the company produce or deliver the goods or services it was offering – and what competencies helped it do so. But competencies were often too concrete and physical to help develop something new, and the values often to airy to comprehend and turn into physical practice.
Start With Why
More recently in 2009 Simon Sinek published his Start With Why book, which became a well known marketing and branding book. It describes how companies can benefit from working with the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires them to do what they do. He suggests us to start with “asking why” the company does what it does rather than focusing on what it does. The book and the reasoning behind it is not only simple but simplistic – on the verge of common sense. And that’s probably part of the success – it’s easy to understand and points out something very essential to every company and every organization. The question is, how do you start with why – what’s the proper process and through what methodologies do you define a purpose for the company that contributes to define the “why” in a wider context of the heritage and cultural reasoning of the organization?
What drives and differentiates your organization?
At Stagis we have worked with the very key of defining a companys purpose since I founded this brand agency in 1997. Early on, I found interest in trying to understand what was then called the “soul” of the company. Before creating logos, campaigns and communicating with the press I tried to figure out how to understand and describe the central and essential qualities of the company. I thought – and still think – if you don’t know exactly what drives and differentiates an organization, how can you help it express itself in a meaningful way?
We discovered that the soul rather than the products or services is often the differentiator, the very reason that your company is different from others. It’s the reason why your company is unique in some way – and often it’s the engine behind innovation, development and growth. And it tends to have more to do with the practises and ways of doing things and hence the organizational culture of the company than any facts you could look up. This understanding of “soul” was the beginning of what I have later examined, elaborated and named as the company’s “authentic strength” in my master thesis in 2006 and in my book “The Authentic Company” from 2012.
LEGO and NOMA discovered or rediscovered their purpose
In The Authentic Company (“Den autentiske virksomhed” published in Danish at GyldendalBusiness) I examine a wide range of authentic brands, which all have one thing in common: They all have discovered or rediscovered their purpose and it has become their driver of growth. This was the driver of LEGO’s turn around from 2003 – 2006 (and the companys continuing growth), and it was the key driver that lead famous restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen to become the best restaurant in the world – now for the fourth time.
Purpose is the very essence of a brand and a well functioning organization. It’s one of the key codes among 9 codes of authentic identity. It gives meaning to the people that deliver the brand, it is the source of the company’s brand promise and it’s a key element in the customers ability to build a relationship with the brand. This is what determines the brand’s path in the world.
80’s and 90’s was all about values, vision and mission
Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was a lot of talk about company values, the common vision and the company’s mission in the C-suite. Everyone wanted to define the values that people should act by as they went about their daily tasks. Not all of these many value statements and visions help managers and employees to act differently. Often these statements are so vague or generally phrased that they don’t really make sense. And what’s worse, they are often there to fill up an empty space where the company should have it’s overall idea, it’s reason for being.
Remember comes from “re-” and “member”
Right now we are helping DDH (Det Danske Hedeselskab) revitalise and remember their purpose (keep in mind, “remember” comes from two things, “re-” and “member”, so it’s about becoming a member of that purpose once again) in order to build a strong visual and communicative brand on the basis of the company’s authentic strengths. And one of the key elements for the past 148 years is the purpose: to help people live better lifes in the open land of Denmark. In the years after 1866 that meant getting food on the table and surviving in the rural areas. Back then the purpose was about planting forrest, help change the soil so that it could be cultivated for growing plants and draining fields so that farmers could get by. Today they help all over the country, even in 10 other countries and they do innovation. As urbanisation trends over the past 10-20 years are developing more in the direction of big cities and less people in rural Denmark, creating sufficient basis for services like nurseries, schools and healthcare is becoming more difficult. So the founder Dalgas’ purpose is still relevant – just in slightly different ways.
The same goes for the Municipality of Varde in western Denmark (including the most western point of Denmark, Blaavandshuk Fyr) and lots of other regions and towns. We are helping the Mayor and the local politicians and the city managers of Varde redefine and create their purpose above and beyond what is demanded from them by Danish legislation. In order for them to become an attractive place to live and invest they have to find their own passions, their own way of doing things and their own goals that they can unite around.
Where does your company’s passion lie?
To uncover the purpose of the company, you have to find out: Where does your company’s passion lie? What is the set of authentic strengths that the company builds on? And how can these elements comprise a place in the mental and physical market space and create a strategic path into the future? If you are not able of developing a sense of purpose you will not be able to create a meaningful and powerful brand. On the other hand, if you succeed in acting from your brand purpose you can unlock your company’s true potential for growth and success on multiple levels, creating a place for learning, ongoing innovation and an improving bottom line. That means talking about the purpose is basically not a marketing or communication concern – as it is sometimes considered – it’s a strategic and organizational issue that every top-management should be discussing. Who are we? What is our key reason for existing? Which inner strengths make us good at what we do?
Transforming purpose into actions, budgets, projects and policies
When the communications- or marketing department asks for the company’s purpose and try to define it in order to communicate, there is a tendency for the process to become a glaze that creates a nice surface which is supposed to give meaning to certain target groups – like new customers. But if the purpose isn’t felt and lived by the people inside the organization or town hall – who are delivering the brand every day – the mission of talking about purpose hasn’t really been accomplished. Defining and redefining the company’s purpose is one of the core assignments for the board of directors and the CEO if it is to have any real impact and carry meaning. They are the people who are able of setting the purpose for everyone in the organization and getting the purpose transformed into physical actions, budgets, projects and policies.
Let’s talk about purpose in a meaningful manner
So when ad agencies talk about purpose, they are absolutely right in pointing out that a brand and any ad or marketing campaign should be defined in terms of the company’s purpose. However, it’s hardly the campaign that is going to drive the purpose forward. So let’s talk about purpose in a meaningful manner. If we do, we will hopefully avoid that the term “purpose” will have same unsuccessful faith as CSR, which was misunderstood by a whole generation of marketing people and used as something you add to the recipe in order to glaze the business with meaning. Purpose is a strategy discipline and not a marketing discipline.