Purpose is the Driving Force Successful Brands Need
Successful businesses are built on the efforts and choices of two types of volunteers, both of which play very different roles in the ecosystem that nourishes an organization. These two types are more commonly known as “employees” and “customers”; however, categorizing them this way does not capture the specific choices each type of volunteer makes to help the organization thrive.
The term “customers” conveniently implies that the people who have purchased products or services from your business in the past will continue to do so in the future. In reality, these people were your customers, but over-confidence can easily creep in if you assign them a moniker that carelessly assumes their future behavior. Each new sale requires a new discretionary act; these people still have agency. This much is already generally appreciated, as evidenced by the application of customer relationship management (CRM) methods and marketing campaigns. Purpose can also be leveraged to help increase the chances that someone who has been a customer will choose to be one again in the future.
But what about the other type of volunteers, employees? Why should you call someone with a contract of employment (and a salary to go with it) a “volunteer”? The answer is simple: If you need your employees to put in more than the bare minimum – that is, if you need their commitment, engagement, and drive – then you need employees who volunteer to go the extra mile.
Assuming that you can’t control all of your team members’ behaviors and attitudes – which you can’t, and probably don’t want to – how can you align their motivations and actions with those of your organization? The organization and its employees must share a common purpose. This will not only give employees a reason to do their best work, but will also work to guide employees’ plans, decisions, and actions.
This is not an entirely new observation. In a 1994 Harvard Business Review article, Bartlett and Ghoshal wrote that “in most corporations today, people no longer know – or even care – what or why their companies are.” The key word here is “why.” Smart organizations know that if they can answer the question of why they exist in a way that provides meaning for employees and customers alike, they will have a large part of the recipe for success.
The answer to the “why” question is what defines an organization’s purpose. To engage employees and customers alike, this will need to be something more inspiring than “to increase shareholder value.” As Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson states in “The Business Case for Purpose,” an analytic services report by the Harvard Business Review, “The sense of being part of something greater than yourself can lead to high levels of engagement, high levels of creativity, and the willingness to partner across functional and product boundaries within a company, which are hugely powerful.” Henderson explains, “Once they’re past a certain financial threshold, many people are as motivated by intrinsic meaning and the sense that they are contributing to something worthwhile as much as they are by financial returns or status.”
One example of an organization with a strong sense of purpose, both internally and externally, is Procter & Gamble. Despite their expertise in marketing, the organization knows the value of having an organizational and brand purpose. While marketing tactics might convince some consumers of a product’s superiority, relying on such tactics can breed cynicism internally and will ultimately disappoint consumers over the long term. As Procter & Gamble’s former Brand Director for Northern Europe, Roisin Donnelly, explained, “Purpose isn’t about having one tactical plan with a charity or an agency – it has to be big, inspiring, simple, and memorable. It has to inspire every single person in your company, as well as shareholders, stakeholders, and agencies.”
P&G demonstrates this mentality at the brand level. For example, its feminine hygiene brand Always has set out to empower women and girls. The brand’s #LikeAGirl campaign, which aims to increase the trust that women and girls have in themselves, is more than just effective marketing; it has also made the idea of working for the brand more appealing for talented and ambitious people. As Donnelly added: “Nowadays, people aren’t loyal to companies. Post-millennials aren’t waking up every morning thinking they want to work for the same company for the next 42 years – they want a lot of different things in life. So they want to work for a company they can relate to.”
When it comes to organizations having purpose, the numbers work out too. For their 2015 “The Business Case for Purpose” study, Harvard Business Review grouped companies according to the degree to which each one articulated and understood their own core purpose. The top group, which comprised 39% of the companies that responded to the survey, had outperformed the rest in terms of revenue growth, as well as in geographical expansion, innovation, and transformation.
Leaders cannot exercise control over everything relevant to a business’s success, including employees’ voluntary commitment, customers’ voluntary choices, and the many ideas and decisions that contribute to the organization’s success. A central purpose can be the difference between everyone rowing in the same direction and simply moving in circles.