The grip of purpose on the collective consciousness of the business world may be slowly waning.
You see, purpose has a rather patchy rep. For every Unilever, celebrated for its commitment to both corporate and brand purpose, there are many organisations that have a less-than-satisfactory experience in trying to define and deliver their purpose to the wider world.
2016 saw a number of brands fall from grace in the purpose stakes. According to Radley Yeldar’s ranking of the top 100 companies for purpose, 28 brands fell out of the list in 2016.
Organisations such as Johnson & Johnson, Orange, Diageo and WPP all disappeared from the rankings. It turns out that doing purpose is far harder than Simon Sinek, who did much to popularise the concept, made out.
It is one thing to hold a few purpose workshops and then bosh out a mood film, and quite another to embed a purpose at the heart of the organisation.
Purpose has to be something that a business sees as central to its future and not a set of pleasant words that burnish its present. And all too often, the blame for this is placed at the door of marketing.
The assumption being that if the marketing department or the chief marketing officer drives the purpose agenda, then in some way the programme will be superficial. That it won’t live at the heart of the company and drive fundamental change but simply offer a veneer of corporate wishful thinking.
This is, of course, nonsense. For purpose to be successful, it is increasingly clear that it must be driven by the CMO. And this is because, for a purpose to be taken to the heart of the business, it has to be inherently commercial.
A great purpose is not one that aligns a brand or business with faddish social mores but one that defines the parameters of a brand’s business and the sources of its future revenue. It defines the point of that business, prioritises energy and investment, and guides the innovation pipeline.
Far from purpose making an organisation less commercially focused, it will only work if it is hardwired to commercial performance. Your purpose may, and indeed should, be elevated and expansive, seeking to carve out a clear role for the brand in the lives of people and the wider world that enables it to escape the narrow confines of its category. But commercial it must be, because our organisations are at heart commercial beasts and driven by an imperative to survive and prosper.
Unless a corporate or brand purpose clearly signals a means of prosperity, it is doomed to failure. And that task should fall to marketing because it is to the CMO that any organisation should be looking to understand the source of its revenue today, tomorrow and into the future.
It is the CMO who is in the best position to understand the organisation’s duty to serve people and the way that this can and must change over time. And this goes to the heart of what marketing does at its very best – bringing together the needs of the organisation and desires of the customer to the satisfaction and delight of both.
Far from being obstacles to the success of a great corporate or brand purpose, the blend of commercial focus and customer understanding makes marketers the people best-placed to ensure that a purpose is instrumental and not simply ornamental.
Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer, Saatchi & Saatchi London.