When you set out on your purpose journey, what steps can you take to ensure that your purpose will be genuinely transformational for your business?
In the ten years that we’ve been championing purpose and helping organisations to craft purpose-led visions, we’ve learned lessons about how to ensure that purpose sticks. Above all, we’ve seen how vital it is for purpose to be grounded in reality.
Right from the start, you must root your purpose in the political, economic, social and technological context in which you operate. We call this the ‘dig’ phase: a period of intensive research and analysis of the current environment and future trends that affect your business.
Dig into the political
This starts with regulation and policy. How would stricter emissions targets or a carbon tax, for example, affect how you do business?
Take LEGO. Its stated purpose is “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” but the oil-based plastic it uses to make its bricks creates carbon emissions that undermine that tomorrow. In response, LEGO has partnered with the WWF to reduce its carbon footprint and is now investing $150 million in researching alternatives to oil-based plastic. It’s also exploring digitalisation and new, less resource-intensive ways of playing – all of which will create a more sustainable future for its “builders of tomorrow” and keep it ahead of future emissions policy.
In LEGO’s own words, its purpose is “not just about products, it is about realising the human possibility.” Thinking beyond products and services is a crucial step to ensuring that your purpose can survive future regulatory changes.
Beyond regulation, it is also important to consider how visions of a better world are being articulated within the political sphere.
For example, brands can align their purpose with positive and constructive political movements. Ben & Jerry’s has successfully brought its socially progressive purpose to life by lending its weight and reach to political movements for equal marriage, climate change and sustainable farming, among others.
It’s also worth considering how shared political commitments such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might influence the crafting of your purpose. These both map the terrain and provide opportunities for mission-led businesses to maximise impact by working together. Global brands such as Pearson, Unilever, H&M, BT and Microsoft are already aligning their purpose and sustainability initiatives with the 17 SDGs.
Dig into the economic
By this we don’t mean the ups and downs of the S&P 500 or the FTSE, but the broader trends affecting your sector, the nature of work in your industry and, of course, your customers.
First, think about scale. Is your sector experiencing consolidation? If you are faced with a case of “grow or die,” consider whether your purpose will truly differentiate you and match the scale of your business’s strategic ambition.
Second, think about the future of work. How will you attract the talent you need – not just next year, but over the next 20 years? Remember, your purpose must be something that will be both felt and brought to life by future employees: Get to know them well.
Third, think about the long-term economic trends affecting your customers – existing and potential, near and far. For example, what does the emergence of a middle class in the Global South mean for your company?
Dig into the social
What do major demographic trends such as urbanisation or the rapidly aging population mean for your customers? How can you respond purposefully?
Urbanisation is increasingly being shown to create health challenges as more people move from rural areas and fall into sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits – inspiring a need for purposeful F&D and outdoor activity brands. On the other hand, brands such as IBM are embracing the potential of more sustainable “smart cities” as part of their core mission.
In the same way, UK bank Barclays is responding to the social challenges experienced by an aging population through initiatives such as its “Digital Eagles” campaign, which aims to help older generations build online skills. This is fully in line with its purpose of “helping people achieve their ambitions in the right way.”
Purposeful brands can also challenge societal attitudes.
Take India’s Brooke Bond tea brand. It has drawn on its purpose of “making the world a more welcoming place, one cup of tea at a time” by giving India’s transgender community a platform to challenge caricatures and stereotypes through its “6 Pack Band” advertising campaign. This radical message has stimulated both conversations and sales – and crucially, it sits squarely within the brand’s core purpose.
Dig into the technological
Technology is the wild card that disrupts the political, economic and social dimensions.
When we work with clients to help them define their purpose, we always audit how their competitors are engaging and investing in technology, as well as trends in other sectors that might provide inspiration – or indeed, warning.
On the one hand, imagining future technological disruption - what if people could just print our product on a 3D printer instead of buying it from us? - is a useful way of stress-testing your purpose.
More exciting, however, is how technology can enable you to deliver your purpose on a larger scale.
Financial services firms, for example, are taking advantage of greater mobile penetration in Africa to make money services available to legions of previously “unbanked” people. We’ve also been inspired by Vodafone’s initiative to create a ‘hidden’ app that allows women in Turkey to secretly report domestic violence. The app has been downloaded by 24 percent of smartphone-owning women in Turkey, and represents an impressive manifestation of Vodafone’s purpose to “transform societies and contribute to more sustainable living.”
Beginning your purpose journey with a thorough “dig phase” is crucial. Putting in the hard yards from the start will bring a lot of “reality” into the equation early on and prevent your purpose-led vision from becoming too abstract and ephemeral.