What’s the purpose of purpose?

 
A story by Raquel Sodré

Purpose has become one of the most hyped words of the XXI century. Books have been written on the theme, TED Talks have reached millions of views, coaches teach how to find your own purpose and how to define the purpose of your company.

But what does this big word really mean in the day to day life of a company? How do you practice your true purpose while also having to deal with all the other parts of business?

Contrary to what many may think, purpose is less of an abstract concept than it may seem. On a strategic level, it can — and definitely should — be consulted in the decision making process. The result will be constructing a coherent brand, with solid potential to have a strong relationship with their publics.

Why bother with purpose?

Before we go any further, it is important to make something clear: what is this purpose everyone is talking about? Isn’t a company’s purpose to make profit?

Well, yes and no. In the 21st century, making money may be enough for the board and for investors. But it certainly is not enough for consumers. According to a 2018 survey held by Cone and Porter Novelli, for almost eight in each ten (78%) Americans, companies must have a positive impact on society.

Although the data refers specifically to the United States, empirical knowledge show that purpose is a strong driver for people to connect with brands in many countries (should we dare say all over the globe?).

Recently, in the Futurist’s Club, we had an article about purpose in restaurant businesses, written by Aline Krioghlian, currently based in Barcelona. And the World Economic Forum has stated that purpose, not profit, is the future of business.

How do I let purpose lead the way?

It may sound a bit obvious, but it is not: the first step here is to know very clearly what the purpose of the company is. More often than not, people tend to mistake the purpose for their business category.

For example, sustainability has been a very impactful topic in the last years, which makes some companies state that “being sustainable” is their purpose. The problem here is that sustainability is as big as generic a topic. In order for it to be the company’s purpose, they would have to implement so many changes, that it would probably cause the death of the business itself.

It is possible, though, to choose a specific cause within the sustainability theme to be your company’s purpose. One example could be “to provide cosmetics that are not aggressive to the environment or to people’s organisms”. Another could be “to promote a fair productive chain for all parties involved”.

But the true goal of the purpose is not to look cool in the market. As a matter of fact, companies that are not loyal to their purpose — that is, companies that don’t have cohesion between their discourse and their practice — are soon busted by the public, who’s well informed about whom they give their money.

So, once the purpose is well defined, it is time to put it in the core of your business. One methodology that might be helpful at this point is Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. According to the author, the “Why” — that is, the purpose — of a business should be at the center of the strategy.

This, however, may be easier said than done. It is quite easy to put your company’s purpose at the center of three concentric circles on a piece of paper. The way you transfer that into reality is the real secret. In practical terms, the company’s Why should be like a North, indicating the right direction.

Every strategic decision should be made with this cardinal point in mind. So, before every strategic action, the board members should always ask themselves “is this choice going to lead us towards my purpose, or is it going to drift us away from it?” The answer should be enough to influence the decision making process.

Along the history of the company, there may be some difficult times, when living by the purpose will mean making a choice that cuts down profits. There is a lot of debate around this issue, with advocates for both sides.

If you ask me, I wouldn’t hesitate to say: go for the purpose. The choice for profit may be the obvious one in the short term. However, the cohesion of the brand will be vital for its reputation, which is one of the most valuable assets in the long run.

When purpose is in the company’s core

If you are still not convinced that putting the purpose at the center of the strategy is a wise move, now is the time for your conversion. Some international brands already operate letting their purpose take the wheel, and here are two good examples.

Everlane

Way before the world started talking about the environmental harms of the fashion industry, the American apparel brand Everlane made one of the strongest statements of the market so far. In 2013, the brand shut down its e-commerce, as a form of protest against the shopping frenzy of the date.

“It was our way of having a voice. You see people lining up in a frenzy to buy as much stuff as possible. And most of it ends up in landfill. Clothes should be built to last”, declared CEO Michale Preysman in an interview for Financial Times Fashion.

On their official website, they declare “their way” to make a difference in the world to be “Exceptional quality. Ethical factories. Radical Transparency”, and of course this can be read as the brand’s purpose.

The Black Friday shutdown decision can be related to the ethical factories, since a factory that generates literally tons of waste every week can’t be considered ethical. A coherent way to approach this goal is to stimulate a more conscious consumption style — even if this meant losing profit on the most profitable day of the US market.

Natura

Cosmetics Brazilian brand Natura is one of the most representative examples of how to have purpose as the core of the business. The company started out as a small local cosmetics laboratory in Sao Paulo in the 60s. Around the 80s, the company changed its strategy and started catalogue sales, rivaling with international Avon.

Two more decades, and Natura passed through a new rebranding, where they put their purpose and the brand itself in the center. The company calls itself a “consciousness amplifier”, and they advocate for the use of Brazilian natural ingredients in their formulas. Not only that, they also work with vulnerable communities in the Amazon — from where they procure most of their ingredients.

The brand presents itself as a genuinely Brazilian brand, and the strategy has proven to pay off. In January of 2020, it concluded negotiations for the purchase of Avon. Previously, the company had already bought The Body Shop and the Australian Emeis Holding.

In the 21st century market, building relations with your publics is fundamental. More than just buying a product or hiring a service, people are eager to bond — as I already stated in my previous article about humanised customer care and conversational marketing.

The brand’s purpose is key to establish the connection with your audience. Through the brand’s values and practices, individuals are able to communicate their own values. In turn, it allows them to bond to equals and state to the world what they stand for. When a company ignores this, it loses the opportunity to be a social driver.

How do you feel about brand purpose? Comment on the post and let us know your opinion!


This is a story of the Futurist Club

by Science of the Time

Written by: Raquel Sodré

Raquel is a Lisbon-based communications specialist with a passion for telling stories and spotting trends. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Public Relations, and more than ten years’ experience covering a range of topics — including marketing, health, wellness, lifestyle, and science — as both a reporter for the O Tempo daily newspaper in Brazil and as a freelance writer. She also authored “História Bizarra da Psicologia” (2018), a non-fiction book for young adults. She is a native Portuguese (Brazilian) speaker, and fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian.

She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Culture and Communication at the University of Lisbon, and is a researcher at its Trends Studies and Culture Management Laboratory. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter (@kelsodre) to learn more about her work in lifestyle, cultural branding, tribal marketing, and trends studies.