Sheep purpose

How to ensure your brand 'purpose' is more than woolly marketing


Why is it that so many companies spend hours on discussions around ‘purpose’ and ‘why’, yet still achieve no differentiating effect whatsoever?

25th Nov 2020

In recent decades, organisations have talked and brainstormed for countless hours about their ‘purpose’. I’d be prepared to bet that it is something that has probably been discussed in your company too, right?

One of the problems we struggle with, however, is the definition of what the 'purpose' concept is supposed to be. Is it about creating social added value? Is it about the problems your company solves for your customers? Or is it as simple as the company's raison d'être, the very reason for which it was founded?

Within the 'purpose' discussion, people will often reference Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. In this book he describes the 'golden circle' concept and the three questions companies need to ask themselves:

  • What do we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • Why do we do it?

Most organisations don’t struggle with the 'what'. For example, “We are a company that sells lawnmowers.” Later they move on to the 'how' with “Our lawnmowers are fitted with state-of-the-art AI, allowing them to mow your lawn automatically and with a perfect finish.” But that is where most of the presentations stop. Only occasionally will someone add a 'why'. “We want to create more free time for families, so that they can enjoy their perfectly mown lawn.”

When we use this ‘why’ as the starting point for a company's strategy and communication, it can become a powerful model.

So why is it that companies will spend hours on these discussions around ‘purpose’ and ‘why’, yet so often, it achieves no differentiating effect whatsoever? I work with some of the biggest brands across the world, and I’ve seen lots of well-intentioned presentations about ‘purpose’ that seem positive but actually say very little about what makes the company so special.

Let’s look at banking, for example.

Bank #1 state their purpose as “Empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business” while bank #2 say: “Banking better, for generations to come.” The words are different, but the core of what they say is exactly the same – they want to give their customers a better future. Obviously a worthwhile intention, but hardly differentiating in the eyes of a customer.

A purpose can be effective, but only if it allows you to distinguish yourself and gives a clear direction to your strategy, resulting in concrete actions and behaviour. Sadly, in my experience the purpose of most companies fails to meet these criteria.

What societal problems will your company solve?

In so many cases, a purpose is just too woolly. As a result, it fails to make real impact. So as an alternative, why not stop and think about a societal problem that you can actually help to solve?

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted many good examples of this. Companies identified specific needs in society and used their strengths to satisfy those needs, wholly or in part. These were worthwhile actions in the short term that had immediate positive effects. For many companies this also yielded a lot of positive PR, making both staff and customers proud to be associated with the company name.

The actions during the crisis were mainly of a temporary nature, but contributions were made based on a company’s own strengths. Lego was producing 13,000 face masks per day – some of which looked exactly like the plexiglas in the helmets on the miniature Lego figures that children around the world play with every day, and even needed clipping together so medical staff got a genuine Lego experience! This kind of solving of societal problems gave a boost to people's energy and sense of solidarity.

As we look beyond the crisis though, the trick will maintaining this same altruistic mindset in years to come. I am convinced that many companies will seize the opportunity offered by these events to think more deeply about their societal impact, first and foremost because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will help them to differentiate themselves from their competitors. As a company, you don't need to wait for the next world crisis before you start to consider what you can do to improve society. The crucial question is to decide which social problems the strengths of your company are best suited to help solve.

The strength of tackling concrete problems in a concrete way is that it brings clarity. It is not an everlasting mission; it is a specific challenge. Every employee and every customer will know exactly what problem you are trying to solve, which also makes your communication about objectives clear and transparent. Likewise, measurability will be similarly straightforward. By making the right choices, the world will be able to follow the extent to which you are getting closer and closer to your goal.


Steven van Belleghem is one of the world’s leading thought-leaders, speakers and authors on customer engagement. His new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse is out now


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