Having lived on the West Coast for several years now, I’ve gotten used to being asked things like “What is your calling?” at dinner parties. These questions used to always take me aback; I would awkwardly stand and swirl my wine around in circles trying to come up with something bohemian, yet coherent, to say. But what was even more unsettling to me was that I had never given the issue enough thought to have a crisp answer ready. Though I had been advised by dozens of career coaches over the years, the purpose question had never come up.
I didn’t know what my purpose was, but it was clear that it had to be something aspirational and greater than myself – after all, it was my reason for existing in the world. I knew that if I asked someone the same question and heard something like “to make coffee” or “to sell t-shirts” in response, I’d likely be underwhelmed. It got me thinking about purpose on a grander scale. In the business world, we treat corporations like individuals, giving them the same legal rights and freedoms as our fellow humans. So, when it comes to having purpose, why do we hold ourselves to a high standard, yet we find it perfectly normal for the companies that run so much of the world around us to have little sense of purpose at all? Why are we OK with the vast majority of companies being built around generating profit with no thought to the change they aim to create in the world?
In large part, this thinking has to do with a belief that has become a doctrine of the corporate world: that above all else, corporations have a single and paramount obligation to maximize returns for shareholders. While that myth has been debunked by lawyers and economists time and time again in recent years, it has seeped deep into the psyche of corporate America. And yet it’s simply not true. As Jack Welch said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. It is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers, and your products – not your shareholders.” A corporate executive isn’t an employee of the shareholders: she’s an employee of the corporation. As such, it is up to her to define what the raison d’être of the company will be – and by no means does it have to be profit at all costs.
Clayton M. Christensen and Derek van Bever argue in “The Capitalist’s Dilemma” (published in Harvard Business Review in June 2014) that because capital was once scarce, corporate America was built around the principle that companies must be primarily evaluated on how efficiently they deploy capital. Return on investment quickly became king, which bred a focus on short-term decision making and a prevailing view that the corporation is a machine for creating financial surplus and distributing it to shareholders.
But this is no longer the world we live in. Today, capital is abundant, and our engrossing obsession with efficiency is no longer relevant. By looking beyond traditional ROI metrics, corporations can gain the leeway needed to take a more long-term strategic view, be more disruptive, and increase their impact – in other words, they can reimagine themselves as an engine to create real value in the world. As Kenneth Mason so aptly explains, “Making a profit is no more the purpose of a corporation than getting enough to eat is the purpose of life. Getting enough to eat is a requirement of life; life’s purpose, one would hope, is somewhat broader and more challenging. Likewise with business and profit.”
So how do we spread this view? How do we reposition purpose as something that every company should bake into its core? Approaching this same challenge for a product would be considered a “branding” issue: an issue of changing how companies (and, more importantly, the people who run them) think about purpose. While there are many definitions of what a brand is, a common one is “the personification of a product or company.” It seems all too appropriate, then, to take a branding lens to this challenge of realigning corporations to be more human in their approach to purpose.
A great example of a similar type of rebranding in recent years was that of “customer centricity” as a core business tenet, in which the customer emerged from behind the shareholder as the primary person a business is meant to serve. A small subset of companies, including Apple, Whole Foods, and Amazon, led the charge by embracing the ethos of delighting the customer as their primary objective. This strategy made a lot of sense (and, consequently, a lot of profit). It therefore spread like wild fire across the business community, with everyone scrambling to design think their way to innovation. Suddenly, being user-centric was a necessity.
How do we rebrand purpose in the same way? How do we take it from being a fluffy, optional nice-to-have that a small subset of “do-good’er” companies have and transform it into a mandatory table-stakes element that every organization must define for itself? How do we rebrand purpose as something practical, rather than something purely aspirational? What might a brand’s statement of purpose look like if they were to take all of this into account?
Looking Ahead: The New, Purposeful Brand Statement
Corporate leadership (C-suite executives).
2/ Positioning Statement
For corporate leaders, purpose is the rationale that explains why the world can’t live without them.
3/ Brand Pyramid
a/ Functional Benefits:
Point of differentiation from competitors; clear guiding principles that tell employees what to do in various situations; attracts employees that subscribe to what the organization is doing/building in the world; sets guard rails for strategic decisions to investors easier.
b/ Emotional Benefits:
Happy/loyal customers and inspired/motivated/united customer base.
c/ Brand Essence/Promise:
Creates a sense of identity for the corporation and everyone it touches (a rallying cry/glue for everything the organization does).
4/ Brand Values
Responsibility, conviction, intentionality.
5/ Brand Archetype
A caregiver or “bread winner” whose stake-holders rely on it.
If – or, hopefully, when – the business community embraces the new way of looking at purpose outlined above, we must ensure that it is easy for them to act on it and integrate it into the tools they’re using every day to make decisions. I propose starting with the business model canvas – one of the most fundamental tools that any entrepreneur picks up when starting a new venture. Adding a “Purpose” box to the top of the canvas could help ensure that every business launched from here on out has a purpose baked into its core from day one.
A common piece of advice in the professional world is to be “so good they can’t ignore you.” Let’s make every corporate leader want to be so good for the world that they can’t be ignored.
Now when I get asked at a dinner party what my calling is, I say, “To prompt those around me to question their assumptions and look at the world through a new lens.” It’s what I do as an innovation strategist in my day job, and it’s what I try to also do consistently in my personal life. Sometimes that leads to better products and higher profits, and sometimes it just leads to a better, more interesting world.