Stakeholder Trends and Insights
The Challenge of Authentic Purpose

I was absolutely delighted to read the recent announcement from Sustainable Brands CEO KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz revealing that the theme of SB ‘16 San Diego will be ‘activating purpose.’ This year’s event is dedicated to helping businesses and brands move from understanding why purpose-driven brand leadership is the path to success in the 21st century to actually learning how to bring that purpose to life.

This year, topics under discussion include purpose-driven leadership, building purposeful organisations, engaging customers through purpose, innovating on purpose, and activating purpose upstream in the supply chain. As a contribution to this global discussion, in this article I would like to focus on the great challenge of both defining and then really living an authentic purpose. This challenge exists due to the gap between authentic purpose and counterfeit purpose.

You know you have encountered a counterfeit purpose when there is a perceptible difference between what a person says, what they actually mean, and what they actually do - i.e. how they act with every person with whom they interact. This equally applies to organisations and brands.

You know you have encountered an authentic purpose when what someone says, means and does all line up; when you cannot detect any difference at all between them.

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This sounds simple, but people are complex beings, with egos, issues and at times questionable ethics - even the ones who talk a great talk.

The essence of who you are fully comes to presence in the customer experience of those who are not your customers. You can really observe the dynamics of someone's stated purpose when they interact with people who are not their clients, or people who they perceive as adding no material benefits to their lives. These are really great interactions to study, especially if you are extremely attentive to the giveaway 'tells' - the body language poker players study, which really reveal what a person is thinking.

BrewDog co-founder James Watt, who spoke recently at the London School of Economics, shared his thoughts on authenticity in business in the 21st century:

“Internal is external. Business has changed so much in the last ten years that everything you do inside an organisation is reflected to the outside. Culture is marketing; marketing is culture. It*’s two sides of the same coin. What you do needs to be completely consistent throughout inside your organisation and outside your organisation. It has to be the same. It can**’t be one thing externally and another thing inside. It**’s going to crumble like a pack of cards.**”*

This quote absolutely matches the message of dynamic wholeness that Maria and I have discussed in our workshops on Holonomics at Sustainable Brands events in London, San Diego and Rio. Great companies are the ones that design what I have termed ‘customer experiences with soul.’ Experiences with soul are the only ones that truly resonate with people. A customer experience has soul when it has the quality of authentic wholeness, the principle of life itself.

Authenticity is my number-one key collaboration factor when developing long-term partnerships, and at Holonomics Education we are fanatical about authenticity - it underscores everything we do and everything we are about. It is not enough to talk the talk, nor walk the walk; you have to live your purpose in each and every waking moment.

My schematic of authentic purpose may seem quite straightforward on the surface, but there are extremely interesting and complex dynamics and questions that arise from it. James Souttar is a brand strategist and design consultant based in the UK, and we recently discussed the dangers of conformism that might arise:

“I spent 20 years standing up in front of audiences talking about brands, and I came to realise that what we were talking about was *unsustainable* - nobody could do it, and it was just like a big stick that organisations were beating themselves with. ‘Mea culpa! Mea culpa!' ‘Why can't we *live our brand*? ‘What's wrong with us?' ‘Maybe we need a new restructuring*’ ...*

“Life gets much easier when we allow that human beings are contradictory. And that life changes. And that these are good things. We feel one thing today, another tomorrow. So why try and bludgeon it all into 'consistency'? If we want to be 'authentic,' we need to look at how we actually are, and what we do, and wrap our words around that.”

These are great points, so I would like to suggest that everyone attending a Sustainable Brands event this year contemplate these questions:

  • Is it ever truly possible to coalesce these three circles and end up having no contradictions between them?
  • To what extent can contradictions catalyse creativity, innovation and momentum, without being counterfeit?
  • Which contradictions should we celebrate rather than seeking to smother out?
  • To what extent do we as leaders have the ability to be brutally honestly with ourselves when reflecting on the differences between these circles?
  • To what extent are we able to really ensure that what we say is actually what we mean, given the inherent ambiguity of language and the challenges of ambiguous communication?
  • How good are our listening skills when receiving feedback from our customers, clients, stakeholders and wider community? Are we really able to determine how they have understood what we have said or do we construct our own conclusions based on our beliefs, values and culture?
  • To what extent do our goals and objectives contradict one another, and if they do, to what extent can they still authentically contribute to our overall purpose?
  • To what extent do we as leaders allow our teams to have creative freedom, while not losing sight of our long-term mission, vision and purpose?

It is not enough to just to value a brand economically, since we encounter brands not just through our rational minds, but connecting through feeling, interacting through sensing, and comprehending the authenticity of a brand in our intuition. This authenticity can only come through a deep belief in human values. Although this is by no means a definitive list, these are the ones that we at Holonomics Education attempt to live our lives by: love, peace, truth, right action, and non-violence.

The path to an authentic purpose is a continual journey, one where we endeavour to always bring these three circles ever closer together. Brands are living entities; they are either a perpetual becoming, or they are nothing.

As Maria and I said in our opening plenary at Sustainable Brands London in 2014, brands are not a thing to be known or controlled. They are a magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced. And that experience can only come from an inspired, authentic and active purpose.

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