Purpose is dead. Long live purpose.

Two years ago, brand purpose was the hottest show in town. Every brand that had one was trumpeting it loudly and everyone else was frantically trying to come up with one. Today it’s tumbleweed. 

What happened? Did everyone suddenly stop caring? No, everyone started caring – so caring became a far less distinguishing brand feature to shout about. That’s a good thing.

Developing your purpose requires a deep reflection on your corporate identity – what you stand for.

In the beginning

Initially, the brands that found it easier to go further with purpose were quirky pioneers (PatagoniaBen & Jerry’sTom’s Shoes) and businesses that happily discovered that what they ‘did for a living’ lent itself to a purpose-led strategy (TeslaGoogleIkea).

In the world of professional services and b2b technology, a few early adopters also adopted purpose-led brands that helped bring their business strategies to life.

PA Consulting built its brand strategy around the concept of ‘Bringing Ingenuity to Life’ in an increasingly technology-driven world.

Johnson Matthey – a FTSE 100 global company in business for more than 200 years – developed its brand around ‘Inspiring Science. Enhancing Lives.’

And EY’s ‘Building a Better Working World’ showed that even accountants could have purpose if they kept it close to their business.

What these purpose-led brands have in common is that they lean into the ‘make the world a better place’ theme that purpose demands but keep one foot in their actual business and link their purpose to their proposition in an authentic way.

Every large business’s leadership team said, “we need a purpose statement, yesterday”.

Then came the crowds

Spurred on by the shifts in the business-world zeitgeist that emerged as the pandemic receded (in the Global North at least) and demands from their employees for more supportive working practices, just about every large business’s leadership team said, “we need a purpose statement, yesterday”.

However, they soon discovered that developing a purpose-led strategy is more complex than it seems.

As a McKinsey report put it, developing your purpose requires a “deep reflection on your corporate identity – what you really stand for – which may well lead to material changes in your strategy and even your governance.”

Yikes! That’s a bit more complicated than coming up with a generic statement about wanting to ‘unleash potential’ or something like that.

All this quickly led to the purpose equivalent of ‘greenwashing’.

So what happened? The vast majority of these efforts led to one of two outcomes:

The gaslighting method, where businesses like BAT swallowed any sense of corporate shame and asserted that “you might think our business is bad, we think it’s good”. They didn’t have to do this.

The sleight-of-hand method, which is more benign and much more pervasive, takes a good old-fashioned mission statement and simply replaces the word ‘mission’ with ‘purpose’. GE did this recently and, amusingly, decided to call it a mission/purpose statement. Perhaps they meant to delete one before publication?

Of course, there’s no legal definition of purpose. But, if it’s meant to be anything more than a proxy for a mission, it’s got to embrace some dimension of making the world a better place.

All this quickly led to the purpose equivalent of ‘greenwashing’. It’s easy to make fun of it and, in some cases, to throw your hands up in horror at it.

Purpose has to be differentiating if it’s going to be worthy of building a brand around it.

End of the line?

But as quickly as it emerged, purpose suddenly went off the boil. Why?

Not because it’s a dead issue. Far from it.

Few, if any, of the underlying causes of the rise of brand purpose as a salient business issue have gone away: fears over the climate emergency, social equality, workplace diversity, technology-induced dystopia — the list is long and growing.

And, the knowledge workers within modern professional service firms are some of the most likely to demand that their organisation contributes to the world beyond making money and paying taxes.

No, it’s gone off the boil because it’s become an expected ‘standard’, not a differentiator, for most brands who have realised that if everyone has a purpose, simply having one is no longer valuable. The purpose has to be differentiating if it’s going to be worthy of building a brand around it.

Brands like PA Consulting, Johnson Matthey, and EY show that if it’s authentic and embraces a considerable measure of proposition, then purpose-led brand strategies can continue to cut through because they are built on genuine differentiation.

Networks of companies forming ‘purpose-led coalitions’ to address significant, systemic issues.

Hunting in packs

If the forces that originally drove the need for purpose are still there, what can brands who struggle to find differentiation around it do?

Away from single-company purpose-led strategies, an interesting trend that might be a source of inspiration for leaders of professional service firms is observing networks of companies forming ‘purpose-led coalitions’ to address significant, systemic issues that are close to their core business but that, as just one player, they would struggle even to begin to make a dent in.

A great example is the Global Fashion Agenda, where big apparel companies, including Nike, H&M, and Asos, have pooled resources to create a sustainability movement focused on ethical supply chains.

A much older one (created 20 years ago before the modern concept of ‘purpose’ was even coined) is the Marine Stewardship Council. Initially set up as a joint venture between the WWF and Unilever (and now funded by a much wider group of stakeholders), the MSC’s initial purpose was to enable producers like Unilever to identify and source from sustainable fisheries. A certification that previously didn’t exist.

Imagine, for example, a combination of a global law firm, a tech company, a bank, and an airline getting together to make a dent in enabling better and fairer access to legal international migration services.

Purpose is here to stay – in that all brands today are far more conscious.

Generally better

A welcome bi-product of all the focus given to purpose over the last 3-4 years is that the vast majority of businesses – particularly big ones with lots of people – have taken a long hard look in the mirror on issues such as inclusion, diversity and broader employee-focused policies such as flexibility and work-life balance.

Leaders today know that a line at the back of the annual report making a “commitment to diversity and inclusion” or a “consciousness of environmental impact” no longer cuts the mustard.

That’s got to be a good thing.

So purpose is here to stay – in that all brands today are far more conscious that what they do ‘behind the curtain’ of their operations is now as much a part of their brand as what they choose to display in their real or metaphorical shop window. Investors care, regulators care, customers care, and most of all, employees and recruits care.

Long live purpose!

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.