The purpose of purpose — Brand Ethos
17 May 2016

The purpose of purpose

Everybody’s talking about purpose-driven business. They have good reason to be
New research shows the 'seven lenses' of purpose. Yet, purpose is determined by a mindset, and a shared set of values and beliefs

In Claremont’s Purpose in Practice, published today, Henry Playfoot opens with the line, ‘It seems everybody’s talking about purpose-driven business’.

And what might be the reason for that? You may well ask. Authors Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan in On Purpose cite research from Havas Media Group in 2015 that shows ‘the majority of people could not care whether 74 per cent of brands they brought existed or not. However, it also found that the [few] brands that people found most ‘meaningful’ to them… were regarded as essential to their lives’.

As Playfoot, and his co-author, Ross Hall, go on to argue, the imperative for having a clear purpose is increasingly important to business because not only is it the right thing to do, it is also a better thing to do. Their research revealed seven ‘lenses’ through which purpose can be viewed and shown in the graphic.

I am sure it goes without saying that customer-focused businesses are more successful than those that aren’t. Smith and Milligan state that ‘the best businesses will have a purpose that is driven by insight, first and foremost, into its customers’ needs, but also considers the demands of the society in which they will operate’.

Purpose as mindset

Both publications agree that purpose is about a mindset. ‘Those interviewed,’ say Playfoot and Hall, ‘explained that a CEO and leadership team with a purposeful mindset is necessary – but insufficient – for a company to become authentically purpose-driven. And while mission statements are helpful, words alone are never enough.’

In his report, The Power of Purpose, EY’s global chairman and CEO, Mark Weinberger, says, ‘Purpose really comes down to mindset. It means building a culture that taps into your people’s sense of aspiration. It means empowering everyone you work with – from your clients or customers to your employees to your communities – not just to do better, but to be better. After all, purpose is truly about doing well by doing good.’

This mindset is both rational and irrational, both the head and heart, Daniel Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking. In Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, he suggests that people – he uses an example of the clever marketing people at the Economist – can be manipulated to respond to the irrational, rather than the rational.

Irrationality doesn’t have to be used manipulatively, but through having an insight into to what people really think, what their values are, ultimately to the culture they subscribe to. This collective understanding is what we call the brand ethos. A blend of values, ideas and beliefs that flow inside and outside through the porous membrane of an organisation. Ethos creates purpose.

Matthew Taylor, the RSA’s CEO, speaking at Claremont’s launch today, told Playfoot and Hall in their report, ‘Organisations typically construct purpose through ideas and words, diluting visceral convictions about purpose in the process. [When] it comes to deciding on purpose, whole organisations often end up working from the ‘stomach’ – the felt sense of purpose – of one or two leaders, feelings that ultimately may not carry through the organisation, unless they are communicated in ways that help give rise to shared experience of that sense – not idea – of purpose.’

Hat wearers. What people believe

To my mind this couldn’t be more important as ‘audiences’ no longer wear one hat. An employee can be a customer, a shareholder, a volunteer in an internal charity fundraiser, a new talent buddy, a member of a works council, even an alumnus.

What it feels like through all these touchpoints isn’t just about look and feel, tone of voice, consistent experience. It is a feeling that the organisation that employs you, whose products and services people use, whose suppliers you benefit from, all connect and share a common ethos and are all overheard in the same way by everyone. What matters is what people think, feel, believe. What matters is what matters to them.

Making money isn’t your purpose

Purpose is enduring. Lene Friis from Lego, perhaps an organisation with one of the best known purposes, says, in Claremont’s report, ‘Only one fifth of our CEO’s KPIs is related to turnover… Obviously, we need to sell, we need to be profitable – because that’s like our oxygen – but that not our purpose. It can never be our purpose’.

How do you articulate a purpose, if it often driven by feelings? How do you live it? How do you measure it? Clearly Simon Sinek’s Start with why is a great starting point. Read about this in our blog, More why ‘why’. Getting to your brand purpose. I’ll return to living it in future blog.

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