“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.” 

(Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle)

What’s the purpose of a brand purpose? According to Simon Sinek – the Daddy of brand purpose – it is what draws people towards an organisation. If brand positioning is the answer to the question: “why should I buy?” then brand purpose is a response to a bigger, more fundamental question: “why should I care?” Brand purpose is the antidote to indifference. But not everybody is sold on the idea. Reflecting on a recent breakout of purposes from the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Kellogg’s, Mark Ritson has suggested that “the entire positioning exercise [has] departed from consumer reality and entered the kind of aspirational emotion zone that only ad agencies and the most deluded brand manager actually inhabit.”

Harsh words indeed, but entirely understandable. Brand purpose exercises are typically led by marketing teams, who often work in organisations that are decades – if not centuries – old. In this respect, they are Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘mud as man’ incarnate: someone else created the organisation or product they represent and if the marketing team insists that everything must have a purpose, then it is their job to think of one. No wonder cynics fail to see the point in brand purpose: it is easy to caricature as a return to the bad old days of touch-feely marketing navel-gazing.

So is brand purpose “bullshit”, as Ritson suggests? The authority on bullshit is Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, who defines it in the following way in his aptly titled essay, ‘On Bullshit’:

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

This passage pretty much sums up the case against expressions of brand purpose: they ignore reality. Starbucks’ purpose is to ‘inspire and nurture the human spirit’ but it sells milk and coffee. The Kellogg Company’s purpose involves ‘nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive’ but it makes Pop-Tarts. Marketing cynics are quick to point out these disparities. But what’s wrong with aiming a little higher? If the cynics had their way, companies would state in simple and refreshingly honest terms what marks their products and services out as remarkable or different. Starbucks would focus on making great coffee and McDonald’s would devote itself to making ever-faster food.

How does this help a business to grow?

According to Harry Frankfurt, a disregard for truth is the defining characteristic of bullshit. A purpose statement that exhibits an indifference to reality is without doubt an exercise in bullshit. But very few – if any – brand purpose statements are so completely divorced from reality. The vast majority of these statements use an understanding of the world as it is today, to express an intention for how to make the world better tomorrow. And intentions matter because they initiate outcomes. Starbucks’ brand purpose creates an expectation that it will innovate beyond coffee. Kellogg’s brand purpose creates an expectation that it will act meaningfully to counteract diobesity and malnutrition. The ultimate measure of a brand purpose is the extent to which it can be used to motivate and direct meaningful growth, in at least four respects:

1 – Helping people make faster, better decisions

Allen & Overy was founded in 1930 by George Allen and Thomas Overy, formerly partners at Roney & Co. The firm’s reputation was made as a result of George Allen’s role as advisor to King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936. In 2008, Allen &Overy’s partners felt that though highly successful, the firm punched below its weight in relation to more assertively positioned competitors. They wanted to re-affirm their brand around a global purpose that would support new growth and help the firm to be seen as the most successful of the global elite of international firms. The purpose: to be the world’s most advanced law firm, for the world’s most advanced companies.

Advanced has been enthusiastically received and adopted across the firm. It serves as a lens for decision-making at every level and ensures that partners consider the long-term sustainability of the business, as well as its short-term performance. David Morley, Allen & Overy’s worldwide Senior Partner, places significant emphasis on Advanced as a tool for ensuring decisions are made with the future in mind:

“In tough times it can be very tempting to focus on profitability and personal reward – the dollar today. But our partners recognise that there’s a long game to be played and that they have a responsibility to pass on the firm in better shape than they found it.”

For this reason, the firm’s leaders outline what they expect an Advanced Allen & Overy to look like in 10 years’ time – and how they are investing today to ensure these expectations are delivered. The firm has since introduced new working practices, such as ‘fluid resourcing’ to allow it to cope with fluctuations in demand for its services. No aspect of the business has been neglected and the implications of innovative policies are considered from every angle: should the business buck the current fondness for large offices, which make a statement about its size and ambition, in favour of smaller hubs, which will allow for greater flexibility? Would moving to a network of hubs offer advantages other than cost savings? Would it allow people who work for Allen & Overy to achieve a better balance between work life and home life?

The human implications of each decision are carefully considered. For example, it is common in the legal profession to recruit graduates who are typically invited to become partners after 10 – 15 years of working their way up through the firm. This means that women in the business are invited to become partners around the same time that they are likely to start having children. So Allen & Overy offers part-time partnerships, as well as considering broader measures for creating flexible ways for people to develop their careers without sacrificing their personal ambitions. Advanced is a deliberately brief and broad-brush purpose: it is a challenge to every individual to apply their experience and intelligence to make positive decisions about the future of the firm.

2 – Inspiring better ways of working

W.L. Gore & Associates (Gore) is probably best known as the creator of Gore-Tex fabric. The company was co-founded in 1958 by Wilbert “Bill” Lee Gore, together with his wife, Vieve. They started the company with a clear purpose in mind:

“To make money and have fun doing so.”

And they succeeded. From its humble beginnings in the Gores’ Newark basement, the company is now one of the 200 largest privately held businesses in the US, with annual revenues of over US$3 Billion and more than 10,000 “associates”. Gore has been included in Fortune’s annual list of the US ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ for 18 consecutive years, as well as featuring in equivalent lists in the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Sweden. What’s interesting is how Gore has used its purpose to generate phenomenal growth, without sacrificing its culture: the company is frequently described by journalists as ‘a big company that behaves like a start-up’.

Gore’s purpose was the catalyst for Bill Gore’s creation of a flat organisational “lattice” where everyone shares the title of “associate.” Associates elect to follow leaders rather than have bosses assigned to them. Associate contribution reviews are based on a peer-level rating system. The entire business is run according to voluntary commitment.

Traditional pyramid structures are built on the assumption that without sufficient supervision from above, employees will misbehave or lack direction. Purpose-centric businesses like Gore understand that faith in people can be a powerful motivator. Faith on the part of the employer confers freedom on employees, which comes at the price of individual responsibility. The freedom Gore permits its employees is built on a firm belief in the individual: “If you trust individuals and believe in them, they will be motivated to do what’s right for the company.” In Gore’s case, brand purpose has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3 – Providing a unique way of looking at the world

Lynx (or Axe, depending on where you come from) was one of the first consumer brands to adopt a genuinely interesting purpose: “to help guys get ahead in the mating game.” The brand’s communication brings this idea to life beautifully. Over the years, the “Lynx Effect” has elevated average guys to the status of Dionysian love gods and has inspired angels to fall from heaven. The brand even issued a public apology to Prince Harry in 2013 after he was photographed cavorting (naked) with a bevvy of beauties at a Las Vegas pool party.

The brand purpose has other practical benefits: the insight team has created a segmentation of guys, based on their approach to the ‘mating game’:

  • The Predator takes advantage of drunk girls and lies his way into their affections
  • Natural Talent is blessed with good looks, intelligence and confidence – he doesn’t need to resort to such underhand tactics to make the girls fall for him
  • Marriage Material is the nice boy who you would want to take home to meet the parents
  • Always The Friend is the guy she likes but doesn’t love… at least not in THAT way…
  • The Insecure Novice is clueless, awkward and in need of guidance
  • The Enthusiastic Novice lacks knowledge, but makes up for this with energy and earnestness.

Unilever identified the Enthusiastic Novice as their core target audience for the brand – a decision which drives how the brand innovates and communicates. Agencies have a clear and interesting brief to respond to. And the resulting creative output is richer and far more surprising as a consequence – a refreshing change from the prevailing category narrative: stronger, longer-lasting protection from sweat and body odour.

4 – Establishing a clear direction for long-term innovation

The automotive industry faces an uncertain future. A new generation of megacity dwellers is emerging, with a reduced need for private transport and a mounting apathy toward car ownership. In 2007, In 2007 BMW’s Chief Executive, Norbert Reithofer established BMWi to develop a long-term vision for the future of the company. The BMWi team reviewed over 300 global trends and through this combination of insight and foresight established a new purpose for the future of the business: to move from delivering ‘ultimate driving pleasure’ to creating ‘the ultimate mobility solution’.

BMWi is more than BMW’s response to a changing future: it is a clear statement that the company intends to take responsibility for authoring a more desirable, more sustainable world for future generations. It’s staggering to see how much has been accomplished in just eight years. BMW has built an entire value chain from scratch and has set up a venture capital company in New York to invest in a broader set of mobility services that will create an entire ecosystem and extend the company’s influence far beyond the role of a traditional car manufacturer. These services include a network of charging points, an online marketplace for parking spaces and smartphone apps that deliver location-based mobility services. Uli Kranz, head of the BMWi team, calls this a ‘360’ approach to design.

BMWi is a remarkably pure vision, not just of BMW’s future but all of our futures. Nothing was compromised in the achievement of this vision. It demonstrates how purpose can be used to drive tangible progress. And it provides a clear rationale for why organisations should take purpose seriously: if you are interested in having a future, then it makes sense to think about it. Brand purpose is a helpful start, but all of these examples show that the ultimate measure of a purpose is the extent to which it is used to create meaningful change.

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