The purpose of a business is no longer just to generate profit and please shareholders. Spurred by three years of catalytic letters by Blackrock CEO Larry Fink, the 2020 Davos Manifesto, and the success of purpose-driven companies like Patagonia and Unilever, more corporate leaders are asking: What’s our purpose?
It’s an important question, especially because for decades, “purpose” was equated to philanthropy, corporate citizenship, and cause marketing. While those approaches can be part of a robust purpose strategy, the practice of purpose goes much deeper—to the center of the business. Before you go there, it’s important to understand the difference between a brand purpose—often called a company’s “north star”—and a brand promise, mission or vision.
At its core, purpose is a business strategy.
Purpose is an organization's aspirational reason for being, beyond profits alone. Often, purpose complements vision (where we're going), mission (what we do), and values (part of who we are) with "why we matter." By definition, this is bigger than brand. For example, think of General Motors's "moving humanity forward." That's not marketing alone. It's board-level strategy.
Purpose is broader than "social purpose" or social impact (although organizational purpose can deliver social benefits).
Companies live their purpose through their core operations. Purpose involves strategy, innovation, product development, the HR / talent agenda, governance, sustainability, sales and marketing, customer service, community relations, etc. It's a journey that ultimately seeks to transform a company -- just as CVS is transforming from a convenience store / pharmacy that sold cigarettes to a health care company that provides insurance coverage.
Purpose is built from the inside out.
That said, many companies include a social purpose element in their broader purpose strategy. Think of General Motors's Zero, Zero, Zero commitment. This can't just be purpose-washing or rebranding of old-school corporate citizenship efforts. It needs to link to business priorities and metrics (ultimately including rewards and recognition).
Purpose is broader than brand, although the two should be aligned.
For organizations with multiple brands, each brand can offer different expressions of a broader organizational purpose. For example, think of Unilever and Dove vs. Ben & Jerry's. Since authentic purpose involves a journey that starts from the inside and seeks to impact every aspect of an organization (policies, programs, employees, etc.), unless the brand is a relatively independent division in a holding company, it's difficult for a brand to have and live an authentic purpose if the company doesn't.
To be clear, the brand can seek to stand for something and align with a cause. But when push comes to shove, will it go deeper than cause branding to impact all aspects of the customer and employee experience -- even when times are tough? If not, you probably don't have a brand purpose. You have a brand promise.
To my way of thinking, a brand promise is also very important. It is the brand-level articulation of "what," "who," "who," "where," etc. and encompasses the traditional 5 Ps. Brand promise reflects a brand's identity and personality as well as what customers can expect from brand interactions in both emotional and transactional terms (including quality, service, value, and reliability).
Both a brand's purpose and promise are powerful. Both help build trust and help people determine whether they want to be associated with you.