Purpose-washers beware! Stating a purpose and being purposeful, are not the same thing

First published in Society Matters magazine, by Claire Southeard, Head of Marketing Communications, Lansons

First published in Society Matters magazine, by Claire Southeard, Head of Marketing Communications, Lansons

“Purpose” was already a 21st century buzzword but the pandemic has accelerated demand for organisations to show how their actions help the world. It has also sharpened focus on those who say they do, but don’t…

Purpose is a cornerstone of reputation. 

Done right, Purpose is a powerful asset linking strategy, governance, culture, and performance, while creating opportunities to stand out, have impact and drive success.  Done half-heartedly, or without any heart, it can be a liability.  

In the last 18 months, Google Trends shows use of the term “purpose-washing” has grown and, whilst not in the same league as ‘green-washing’, this highlights the risk of putting Purpose out there without proper thought.

Add to that the media cynicism about “Purpose” (and its bedfellow, “ESG”), and one might question the value of Purpose, if it’s only going to create problems.

“ESG has always been blighted by hype and wooliness, with too many of its adherents content to sign non-committal pledges and scatter pictures of sunflowers through reports about elusive concepts such as “purpose”.”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, FT

As an advocate, I believe Purpose-done-well creates massive, positive, and long-running impact.  It’s a critical way in which organisations can be held to account.

Take LEGO, who “Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”.

Yes. They. Do.  Their product is the epitome of their Purpose, so why they’re here and what they do are totally in synch.  There are cheaper, not-bad-quality, ‘knock offs’ available but the LEGO brand prevails, despite the premium.  As Simon Sinek might ask… why?!

Because LEGO lives its Purpose, founded on its values of creativity, imagination, fun, learning, quality, and care. Everyone who buys LEGO, or works at LEGO, understands (and believes in) the LEGO difference.

Closer to home, TSB have also nailed the link between Purpose and action.

Their Do What Matters plan is all about “helping people and doing everything we can to make a positive difference”. 

As with LEGO, TSB’s plan is more than words.  It is an active (and public) framework for behaviour – towards clients and customers; colleagues and communities; and, of course, the environment. 

It’s impressive and links to both strategy and purpose. 

“By aligning the [Do What Matters] plan with the business strategy, it allows us to grow the business and our social and environmental contribution in tandem”

Richard Meddings, Chairman TSB

TSB have built a platform from which to make a positive difference while offering transparency about how they run their business.  It’s a masterclass in building trust.

But purpose is not just about reputation…

… although LEGO has appeared in Forbes top 10 most powerful brands for years, and I think getting their Purpose right is partly why they are such a successful, and profitable business.

That’s important because some struggle to accept that Profit belongs in the same room as Purpose. But, as the World Economic Forum said last year, profit from SOLVING problems is how positive change happens. It’s profit from CAUSING problems that creates issues.

This is where Purpose and ESG come together.

If Purpose is the ‘why’, then ESG is the ‘how’.  Action + words.  It’s the difference between having a purpose and being purposeful, and reputationally – and commercially - it makes all the difference.

Three tips for having a purposeful purpose

  1. You have the Why, now nail the HOW (Purpose + ESG)
  2. There are three Ps in Purpose (People, Planet and Profit)
  3. Report, often.  And remember, it’s a journey!

To carry on the conversation, or for more information, please contact Claire at claires@lansons.com

The views, opinions and positions expressed within guest blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the BSA.