Professional service firms are starting to think about the concept of brand purpose as a way to better engage with employees, recruits and clients around the world. It’s powerful but requires careful handling.

Purpose sells. That’s what some recent academic studies indicate and what anyone with their eyes open to what’s going on in consumer marketing around the world could tell you. Think of just about any of the brands that dominate our lives these days and whether or not you’re at all interested in their products and services you probably have a good idea what their purpose is – in Silicon Valley, it’s the first slide in any fundraising pitch.

WHAT ELSE MATTERS?

Not that long ago – may be no more than 20 years ago – most CEOs of businesses of all types could stand up in front of their annual general meeting and unashamedly talk about increasing shareholder value as the highest-level purpose of their organisation. Many might mention things like their charitable and philanthropic giving in their closing remarks, but otherwise, the main takeaway would be that shareholder value was king and anything else was secondary. There were exceptions of course (John Lewis in the UK, Johnson & Johnson in the US) but the herd was focused on it.

Businesses with ‘higher ideals’ – those focused on improving people’s lives – grew three times faster than their competitors.

Nowadays, even the CEO of a vulture fund would probably shy away from single-mindedly focusing on commercial performance, let alone the majority of businesses that have clients, customers and other ‘stakeholders’ in addition to its shareholders. The reason for this change is simply that in those intervening years the push and pull forces of values became too big to ignore. Push, in that people who work for and buy from organisations became more insistent that brands had values and that they could ‘trust’ those brands to do things like care about the environment, be concerned about child labour and sweatshops, know what’s in their products and in general, just care. Pull, in that owners of brands began to notice that new competitors with purpose were eating their lunch. P&G Marketing Director Jim Stengel famously audited data from 50,000 global brands and calculated that businesses with ‘higher ideals’ – those focused on improving people’s lives – grew three times faster than their competitors.

WHY NOT WHAT

Unilever, P&G’s arch-rival, is a wonderful example of a business that has put purpose at the very core of its corporate agenda over the last 10-15 years. Unilever makes and sells everyday things like soap (Dove), ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s) and tea (Lipton) but as a business, they are focused on ‘making sustainable living commonplace’ as their overarching purpose. CEO Paul Poleman has made himself the global brand ambassador for Unilever’s brand purpose, digging into issues like climate change, education of girls in developing markets and challenging gender stereotypes everywhere. A long way from a tea bag on a supermarket shelf in upstate New York you might think, but Poleman and Unilever’s board know that its customers do care where that tea bag comes from and what the company behind it cares about.

When it comes to professional services, purpose is quickly rising up the leadership agenda even if it feels at first glance like a tricky subject. In some ways it was initially easier for service businesses to engage with the challenges of social and environmental issues; they don’t have long supply chains, don’t burn much carbon and tend to operate mostly in relatively benign (developed) parts of the world. But purpose adds an extra dimension – it’s not enough to be against bad things the question now is ‘how are you making the world a better place?’

77% of millennials considered organisational culture ‘more or at least as important as salary and benefits.’

EY has made a strong start in this with their ‘Building a better working world’ agenda; clearly, a purpose-driven concept aimed at engaging its employees, it’s future recruits and increasingly, its clients. Perhaps the most tangible and urgent driver for purpose among leaders of professional services firms is internal. Research by Virgin Pulse in 2015 found that 77% of millennials considered organisational culture ‘more or at least as important as salary and benefits.’ Remember that millennials now make up the vast majority of the workforce of just about every professional services firm on the planet and you can begin to see what EY are up to.

Another large, global professional services firm, PA Consulting, have recently developed a new brand purpose concept around ‘bringing ingenuity to life’. PA talk about their optimism for ways in which technology and its applications through innovation can improve lives in all sorts of sectors from medicine and health through to transport and infrastructure.

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE

What EY, PA Consulting and Unilever (and the more obvious Tesla, Google, Uber, et al.) have done with their purpose concepts highlights the challenge that an authentic purpose statement requires – not just what the owners of the business do on the side with the money they make or the charities that they and their people support.  An authentic purpose has to embrace what the company does as well as how it does it – as Simon Sinek put it in his 2009 TED Talk (now viewed more than 30 million times), “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

EY, PA and Unilever have embraced that, and in ways that are authentic to the sectors they are in and in ways that are a healthy balance between aspiration and credibility. One key point for leaders in professional service firms to remember in developing their brand purpose is to remember that while the purpose must be linked to the actual business, the requirement for uniqueness is far lower – maybe negligible – compared to other aspects of brand development such as propositions and key messages. Tesla wants to make the world a better place by converting travel to more sustainable electric power, but in doing so, it doesn’t say why Tesla alone can do this, no more than EY needs to claim that its ‘better questions’ alone can make the working world better.

Of course, coming up with a purpose statement is only a tiny part of the task. The real work is in the implementation; in the hundreds and thousands of big and small ways in which the company goes about living up to that purpose, making it a tangible part of the way it does business around the world. Not for the faint-hearted – BP famously got into trouble by setting out its Beyond Petroleum purpose campaign without (allegedly) changing its operational safety policies sufficiently to match. Unilever kicked off their vitality agenda in 2005 by auditing their entire global portfolio and removing thousands of tons of salt, sugar and trans fats from its products, recognising that if they didn’t challenge themselves in such ways, they would open themselves up to cynicism from critics.

Ultimately, articulating purpose can be incredibly galvanising for a professional services firm, as it can provide a bridge between the inside and the outside, the so-called employee value proposition, and the client value proposition. Getting it right can help improve loyalty, productivity, and performance, all at the same time.


This article is part of a weekly series ‘How to think about…’; short summaries looking at the components of branding for professional services firms. Read them here as they’re published or look out for them on LinkedIn.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.