Activism over Purpose

There’s a lot of buzz in marketing and PR circles about the importance of businesses having “Purpose”, usually with a capital P.

Generally speaking, this leads companies to identify ways they can be seen to stand for something more useful to society than simply making vast amounts of profit. At best, this translates into organisations introducing changes that improve the environment or bring relief to impoverished societies. But, at worst, it spins up wafer-thin CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programmes where tiny amounts of budget and effort are wafted in the general direction of some cause-related activity to create the illusion that the company’s leaders give a toss about anyone but themselves.

Despite the painfully half-hearted efforts of many organisations, having “Purpose” is rarely a bad thing, but some programmes are more believable than others. In our technology-enlightened age where people have access to vast sources of information and more choice than they can shake a stick at, it generally pays for brands to be seen to be “doing the right thing”. And, more importantly, being nice to the planet and the creatures and resources upon it is an inherently sensible way to offset some of the negativity associated with otherwise existing solely to make rich shareholders richer.

But what does good “Purpose” look like? For me, the origins of “Purpose” should be closely related to an organisation’s existing activities. Brands like Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and leisure provider, get this, with their company mission being “To Save our Home Planet”. Protecting and preserving the environment is the very reason the company exists. Its excellent products are simply a happy by-product that allows more people to enjoy being outdoors, at one with the natural world the company exists to preserve.

Don’t believe me? Check out Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative where used clothing is repaired, shared and recycled to reduce waste and consumption of natural resources.

Start here:

If you’re looking for a credible, meaningful “Purpose” for your company or brand, I’d suggest you start with what you actually do. If you’re a manufacturer of soap dispensers, then committing to a societal change that will improve the planet at large through better hygiene, disease eradication, or creating less waste would make good sense. Conversely, focussing your CSR efforts on supporting a local animal charity, however well-intentioned that may be, is unlikely to make as much sense. Your brand and chosen “Purpose” should be inseparably intertwined.

“Purpose” done well is much more than a snappy campaign and PR programme. It ultimately becomes the thing that makes your employees leap out of bed on Monday mornings, filled with good intentions and ambitions to succeed.

However, even being “Purpose”-driven is often no longer enough. To be credible and authentically real, you and colleagues need to care so much about your chosen “Purpose” that you would be prepared to be activist in calling for and promoting the change you wish to see in the world.

Being activist another of those snappy buzzwords. It’s easy to say, but very hard to do. In my work with organisations around the world, the more closely aligned “Purpose” is to commercial goals, the more willing staff are likely to be to become activist in pursuit of the desired outcome.

Simply put, if your staff would not be prepared to give up their weekend to support voluntary community work or to protest for changes to legislation or to campaign for your chosen “Purpose”, your company is probably not activist enough to be truly credible.

How will your brand be more activist in pursuit of its “Purpose”? What are the changes that you and your colleagues will introduce to the world to long outlive their job titles and short-term commercial goals?