Must purpose be good?

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By Robert Jones  

‘Must purpose be good?’ It’s a summer evening in a Victorian library in the Science Museum in London, and I’m on the panel at a seminar called ‘Purpose Matters’, organised Hall & Partners, the research agency. Of all the questions we’re asked, this is the best.

It made me think hard about this ubiquitous buzzword ‘purpose’. Every company seems now to have one. There’s even a book now called The Purpose Economy. But has the idea become valueless? Is it just management feelgood? Once we’ve defined our purpose, can we all sit back and congratulate ourselves? Is ‘purpose’ just the latest version of ‘vision’?

I’m a believer in purpose. I’ve always felt organisations do better when they have a purpose beyond profit. And it’s always been in the DNA of Wolff Olins: we’ve always wanted to help our clients make the world a bit better. But a few recent things have got me worrying.

First, does purpose really help in external communication? When British Airways started using its purpose explicitly in advertising – ‘to fly, to serve’ – its low-cost rival EasyJet countered cheekily with ‘to fly, to save’ – which neatly captured what people actually want. So is purpose always a turn-on for customers? No.

And some of our younger digital client companies are just puzzled when we push them about their purpose. We don’t need a purpose, they say, we just need to be clear what our platform helps our users to do. So is purpose always essential to get a new product off the ground? No.

Second, is purpose powerful enough inside organisations? Tesco, like many companies that have been hit by criticism recently, has defined a purpose: ‘to make what matters better, together’. But as a customer, can you feel it in the stores? No. Is it helping the company grow? Judging by last week’s sales figures, no.

Several of our clients have excellent purposes, and believe in them, but everyday life gets in the way. Under shareholder pressure, managers understandably go for safety, sameness and revenue, rather than risk, difference and principle. So does purpose – even in those organisations that believe in it – drive decision making? No.

What this all implies is that purpose, on its own, is not enough. And in fact purpose statements, on their own, don’t motivate people, any more than vision statements used to. Mantras help, but it’s the climate that surrounds them that makes the difference.

Externally, purpose needs to become softer, broader, more diffuse: a climate that you could call attitude or angle or even obsession. Unilever’s excellent Jane Buck, a fellow panellist at the Science Museum, calls it ‘point of view’, like Persil’s view that dirt is good. It’s something you can share with customers rather than throwing it at them. It might even be a question you debate with customers.

And internally, purpose needs to become harder – an honest operating principle, or a bunch of them. We can still learn a lot from the Quaker companies, like Cadbury or Clarks, whose founders weren’t philanthropists but tough businesspeople who saw purpose and profit feeding into each other, in a virtuous circle. Organisations now need to talk explicitly about the ROI on ‘purpose’, and to help their people make decisions that are neither idealistic nor rapacious: decisions that make money by making a difference. And if your goal is simply to make money, that’s fine: that’s your purpose.

So the answer is purpose doesn’t have to be good. Externally, it’s not a great idea to boast about your high-minded purpose, about how good you are. And internally, it doesn’t work to pretend to be driven by goodness, to be a kind of NGO, when you’re a profit-making company. Purpose isn’t enough: what’s your point of view? And what are your operating principles?

Robert Jones is Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and a visiting professor at UEA.  

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