Unlocking the Power of Purpose

At a recent breakfast hosted by BrandPie and Kaptcha, leading communications directors from a number of blue-chip brands gathered to discuss Purpose – rapidly emerging as a vital strategic tool for the most progressive organisations. Nick Ranger, Head of Strategy shares an overview of what we covered.

What is Purpose? Put simply it is an organisation’s reason for being. The challenge is to define it, embed it successfully and use it as spur to better performance. Key to achieving Purpose-led transformation is communication and engagement. With this in mind, we asked our guests to consider the role of communications in unlocking the power of Purpose. We also asked them to think about why Purpose is becoming increasingly important, and how it can help to improve business performance. The common themes that emerged suggest that Purpose is a business tool whose time has come.

 
1) Building a legacy

“If you’re a CEO in the business of building and leaving a legacy behind then Purpose is an extraordinarily powerful thing to bring in, try and change the culture and direction of an organisation and leave a mark.”

The arrival of a new CEO, eager to make a mark and signal a new chapter in an organisation’s history, is often the catalyst for Purpose-led transformation. Defining an organisation’s Purpose is the perfect vehicle to show internal and external audiences that change is coming – and what the long-term course of the organisation is. Crucially, Purpose should act as a north star for decades to come, lasting well beyond the tenure of any CEO.

2) Building Consensus

“The conversation with management is ‘what is our relevance as a business now and going forward?’ We’re very comfortable talking about the past but less certain about what the future holds.”

Of course, Purpose-led transformation cannot happen without consensus, so building it must happen early and quickly – often before the Purpose has been defined. Engaging the C-suite in this can be tricky – especially if there’s no ‘burning platform’ to disturb the status quo. To improve the chances of getting the subject on to the agenda, Purpose has to be seen as a strategic business tool that drives business performance.

3) Purpose helps with transparency

“We live in an era of considerably greater corporate accountability than ever before and greater transparency in the world, and there’s a greater expectation that whatever sector you’re in you need to be able to justify and explain yourself.”

The explosion in social media use, growing demands for engagement from a wider variety of stakeholders and an increase in corporate governance requirements means that organisations have to pay more attention than ever to their reputations. While transparency is vital in dealing with unprecedented levels of exposure, Purpose is also key – it helps businesses to justify their place in the world, their license to operate in the marketplace – without which their ability to make money will only ever be temporary.

4) Purpose creates shared value

“Any company can say our Purpose is to serve the clients better, I mean that’s true for everyone, but for me Purpose has to have a business angle”

Purpose only works, of course, if it can help an organisation to make money – after all, there is usually an obligation to shareholders to do so, and a basic need for the organisation to be a sustainable business. The two, however, are not opposites – Purpose and profit need to co-exist. The Edelman 2014 Trust Barometer identified 84% of respondents as ‘happy for businesses to pursue their self-interest while doing good work for society’. As Jim Stengel said in his Grow, “Maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible. They’re inseparable”.

5) Filling the vacuum

“Purpose is about justifying your place in the landscape in which you do business. It gives you focus which is very important in the economic climate.”

Can you articulate why your organisation exists? If you don’t, others will. Which makes it imperative that you project a clear, Purpose-led argument – internally and externally – about what you stand for and why you should be allowed to do business. If you don’t do this, others will tell your story for you – and not in the way you would prefer. As Cyril Northcote Parkinson (who discovered Parkinson’s Law) said, “The vacuum created by a failure to communicate will quickly be filled with rumour, misrepresentation, drivel and poison.”

6) Purpose: first amongst equals?

“Purpose is giving our leadership team an ability to join up more transient pieces… to find something more that gives us continuity.”

A newly defined Purpose will most likely have to work with various other strategic levers such as organisational values, brand, reputation, talent, and innovation. But Purpose can act as the glue that joins all these together, providing a lens through which strategic decisions can be made and bringing focus to investments too. For the potential of Purpose to be unleashed properly, careful attention has to be given as to how the different strategic elements can work together, establishing the respective roles of each. Putting this all into language that employees engage with is also crucial.

7) Future-proofing with Purpose

“It helps build equity into the brand and raise it above just bricks and mortar to stand for something you can go out and talk to the world about.”

Building a brand around organisational Purpose transcends a purely product-driven approach, and done correctly should not just be of enduring relevance to customers but also open up new market ventures, and create opportunities to expand into new areas. If customers relate to your Purpose and the brand experience this leads to, they won’t just buy your product today – they’ll buy your next one tomorrow as well.

 
8) Purpose connects the employee to the world

“It’s about actively trying to make a contribution to the world around you and putting your eggs in that basket of ‘we’re going to change the world and this is how we’re going to do it’.”

Traditional corporate visions face inwards, to the organisation. In contrast, Purpose connects with a pressing need externally – and so offers employees a framework to understand how they should engage with the organisation, and the wider world. Purpose has a deeper meaning, especially if an organisation’s values have been reduced down to a stale box-ticking exercise – is every organisation truly trustworthy, passionate and so on? Individual employees are far more likely to support a Purpose, make it personal and relevant, and take it on as a way to apply their abilities rather than abiding by a set of corporate values that will never be their own.

9) Purpose has to be authentic

“If you get it right, it shouldn’t be something that feels unfamiliar, it should be absolutely familiar to everyone.”

In order to resonate with internal and external stakeholders, a Purpose needs to be credible – derived from the DNA of an organisation and in keeping with its culture, actions and behaviour. Empty promises that can’t be delivered are a PR disaster waiting to happen.

10) Top talent wants a Purpose

“We’re having to think in a completely different way… it’s being driven from the bottom up, it’s our employees that are making us think about this rather than the other way round.”

The new generation of employees are looking for more than just a 9-5 and a steady pay-cheque – they want to spend their careers doing something meaningful and making a difference. Purpose is vital if you want to attract and retain the people who are going to be the future of your organisation. A clear Purpose can appeal to prospective and existing employees who share a like-minded view of the world with your organisation. As business strategist and TED speaker Simon Sinek has said: “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”


In short, an organisational Purpose should not only define the organisation now – it should act as a compass for the future. It needs to challenge leaders and employees, influence decision making and strategy, hold people to account and push them to improve. Purpose is what the future of business looks like.