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PANNING FOR PURPOSE: how can companies find purpose beyond profit?


Once when I felt a bit rudderless my close friend sat me down and took me through a set of questions that she swore by. She found them in a blog post written by Mark Manson, which had the scepticism-inducing title of ‘7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose’. But you know what, she was right. The simplicity was deceptive and I soon discovered that the straightforward questions are often the hardest ones to answer. They somehow demand genuine introspection and years later, I’m still using these questions with other friends who need a bit of clarity.

The term ‘purpose’ is now commonplace in the business world and no doubt has taken on different meanings. For me, purpose is how you demonstrate the broader value you create for society beyond just generating a profit. And although I’m clearly biased, I always thought that this fits squarely within the work being done in CSR and Sustainability. What I’m trying to get my head around now is that there are giant media conglomerations rushing to position themselves as the vanguard of purpose in business. Now that purpose sells there’s a gold rush.

Akin to Mark Manson’s simple questions, I wanted to draw up a set of tips and pitfalls for companies who are on the quest for purpose.

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If you, me and some of your well-meaning colleagues were sitting around the same table, I’d ask you to describe the ‘work you’. You might say that people think you’re hard-working with an underlying desire to do the right thing. The likelihood is that your colleagues will have something different to say – maybe you try and do too much and end up spreading yourself thinly. Maybe your strong sense of values makes you come across like a zealot, unwilling to compromise. Or maybe they actually think one of your best qualities is your warmth and ability to influence people.

In a previous blog I wrote on the power of people in purpose, I said that my favoured way of thinking about purpose is not how you define your company’s reason for being, but what people would miss about it if it didn’t exist. This forces you to acknowledge that other people are instrumental in helping you understand what people value in your company. If you don’t involve others your sense of purpose isn’t the real deal, it just looks like it is.


So, you know that you need to connect with others - including engaging your employees - great. But how are you engaging them? At times, whilst people ensure me that that they are indeed in dialogue with communities, consumers and employees, but their approach to engagement remains entirely old school. It is often used as an opportunity for the company to inform these groups about their work or tell them how valued they are as stakeholders.

What’s better yet is to listen. A collaborative project with our consumer insight partner showed us just how willing consumers are to talk about their CSR and Sustainability experiences if you ask the right questions. ‘What does ethical business mean to you?’, ‘what CSR/Sustainability activities do you most care about?’, ‘what do you want to see us do more of?’ These simple open questions can be so revealing and, furthermore, are the hallmarks of a values-led company that actually cares rather than just trying to impose fixes. It’s not about the nail


I can’t be the only person who’s done this. I can think of some internal projects I’ve worked on which have needed buy-in from other functions or teams to make it a success. I’ve taken my brief and worked away at it in my part of the business, checking in with other people in my team along the way to make sure I’m on the right tracks. When the time comes to hand over or present back to other teams I am sure that they are going to love what I’ve done.

Sadly not. I would get blinkered by my perception of a successful outcome but the end result was something that others couldn’t get or feel. Outside of my field of vision, there were lots of people and groups who thought and valued things quite differently to me, and what I thought made a brilliant idea wasn’t necessarily shared by our design team. What I’ve learnt to do is to bring everyone together at the beginning of an idea so that they all see something of their own in it. By extension, no sole function owns ‘purpose’. To embed a common sense of purpose across the business you need a shared understanding of what’s golden.


I don’t want to put my tuppence worth into the growing discussion around millennials, how they behave and what they value. There are some assumptions that I think won’t be refuted: companies are realising what a significant market segment millennials are (1/4 of global population, 75% of UK workforce by 2025) and that they value things differently to previous generations. One commonly held assertion is that they care much more about authenticity – something that is in itself very tricky to define and varies by subset (have a look at pages 8-9 of Inkling’s Millennial Report).

There are some drivers for authenticity that are generally agreed: don’t lie, don’t copy others, don’t be two-faced. I think there’s currently an interesting imbalance between business leaders recognising that there’s something important in purpose, but not always getting it right. Take this blog post from Forbes Business Development Council which does identify the key principles of staying authentic, but then concludes: “When I was in Haiti slipping the shoes onto the feet of Haitians who needed them, many smiled at me and were genuinely engaged with me.” This isn’t the worst offender, but labelling something ‘purpose-driven’ or ‘authentic’ and pumping marketing money into it doesn’t mean it’s going to work. No-one needs another Kendell Jenner Pepsi advert…


Full disclosure: I’m going to do the typical sustainability professional thing and reach for the Unilever playbook. I do think there’s a serious point to make in how widely Paul Polman is lauded for the company’s sustainability efforts – both in terms of changing the company’s culture and embedding purpose, and the indisputable numbers. I’m sure that we’ve all been trotting out memorised facts to defeat sustaina-sceptics in arguments (e.g., Sustainable Living brands growing 50% faster than the rest of the Unilever business and delivering more than 60% of overall growth in 2016).

What we often fail to remember is that this didn’t happen overnight. This was a ten year plan – a concept that is alien to many of us. He survived periods of considerable unpopularity, particular amongst investors, and recently fended off a significant hostile takeover bid. The path to purpose is clearly slow-yielding and requires patience and dedication. If you’re led to believe that you can address your purpose problem with one glossy marketing strategy revamp, think again.


It may be cliché but it’s true – they’re made of all the effort that goes on behind the scenes. We’re all guilty of seeing a final output and wanting a fast-track to it, but deep down we know it doesn’t work like that. Purpose is the same. My concern is that lots of agencies are jumping on the purpose bandwagon and selling magic fixes. This isn’t about a polished outward-facing campaign; it’s about addressing whether your business model aligns to your ethics and values.

The good news, as I mentioned before, is that we in CSR and Sustainability have a lot of licence to think about purpose as our work is geared around delivering social impact for communities, customers and employees. The opportunity we have now is to collaborate with other functions to bring that sense of purpose to life. We’re sitting on a gold mine – we just need some help to bring it to the surface.

Contact me or any member of our Corporate Advisory team to discuss how we can help you bring your CSR and Sustainability strategy to life.



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