Purpose is about motivation
Of course, it is right to gear entrepreneurial action to the needs of all stakeholders and the environment, and to strive for a positive contribution to society. But after all, there's nothing new about this insight. However, it has gained new urgency through the current social discourse on sustainability – partly certainly because it has long been deliberately ignored. That's why the sentence Alfred Herrhausen, ex-Chairman of the Board of Deutsche Bank, voiced 30 years ago, is more valid today than ever: »Deutsche Bank cannot limit itself to doing good business [...]. It must [...] assume social responsibility. We must accept some kind of ethical obligation.« And, of course, this is not only true for Deutsche Bank.
Purpose is not only about (re) focusing on one's own social responsibility, but also about a motivating description of meaning as a common goal. But is purpose really understood and followed as this long-term guiding principle? And can it even have an effect as such if shallow phrases like »to make the world a better place« are used? Or isn't the purpose often actually seen as an elegant way to increase profit by formulating the corporate purpose in a meaningful way? And what if a consequent purpose orientation leads to less profit in the first place – because some businesses can no longer be done? Is it possible to do without it again in the end?
But let's assume that »Why?«, »How?« and »What?« have been answered meaningfully. Does a company already have a strong brand positioning? I mean: Not yet! Because the purpose is primarily of internal importance. It should give the people who work for a company meaning and direction, an understanding of what contribution you can and want to make in the world. So far so good. But at the moment, statements such as »purpose is the new brand« are often found and in newer brand models there is often a purpose where a customer-oriented brand promise has long stood. So is the latter no longer needed?
Well-balanced feel-good formulations
I perceive the purpose statements of many companies as obviously well-balanced feel-good formulations about their role in the world. But they are rarely really differentiating. It's about balancing interests and responsibility for the future, about positive contributions and, of course, about what really counts. It is important not to step on anyone's toes, not to jeopardize the social »license to operate« and to give your own employees the feeling that they are participating in a »good cause«.
Take Siemens' »We make real what matters.« – an honorable and entirely credible commitment to deal only with the important things. That does indeed make sense! But would one rub one's eyes in irritation if the same thing were to be read about General Electric or Bosch? Can »First Move the World.« really only Daimler claim for itself? And not just as well Volkswagen or Toyota? Can genuine differentiation be achieved this way?
And with all due respect to Sinek's thesis »people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it« – but is the »Why« really the only reason why people buy something, such as sports shoes or a mobile phone contract? After all, the bottom line is that brands are supposed to do just that: create attention, preference and desire – and in the end, quite simply: sell. Clearly, a purpose is indispensable for the inner order and meaning of companies – especially for younger employees of generations Y and Z.
The purpose may well be »everybody's darling«
But very few purpose statements succeed in getting to the heart of a brand in a unique and memorable way. A good brand promise is different. When you hear »joy«, you immediately think of BMW. Joy is certainly not a purpose according to the common definitions, but a clear promise. And one that not every car manufacturer makes. Now we are talking about brand.
The purpose can be »everybody's darling«. For a brand this should not be the ambition. And the key to uniqueness as a brand is the brand promise. Here the brand presents its »Wow«. The one idea – a sentence, maybe just a single word – that only this brand can credibly represent and that speaks from the heart of its target group. But can't you simply formulate your purpose in such a way that it also works as a promise? Certainly – but the purpose does not necessarily have to be unique, but above all has to be inclusive and motivating. However, the brand as a whole must clearly distinguish itself and thus also exclude some people. While the purpose must be acceptable to everyone, the brand must decide for whom it wants to be attractive – and for whom it does not.
Of course, brand promise and purpose must be in a meaningful relationship in the truest sense. One cannot replace the other – but it can complement it optimally. Brands need their »Why« – as a cultural basis and guiding principle. But really strong brands also have that certain something that some people find irresistible: their very own »Wow« as a communicative spearhead. Perhaps we need to distinguish these two – in addition to »What« and »How« – indispensable elements of a complete description of identity even more clearly in terms of language: »corporate purpose« vs. »brand promise«. That which connects the company and that which differentiates the brand. Because to be successful as a (corporate) brand, both are needed. »Why, How, What« could thus become »Why, What, How & Wow«. In this way, employees and customers alike can be inspired by the brand. And it doesn't sound bad either, does it?
Author: Sebastian May
Published (in German) by W&V, Monday, 22 July 2019
Truffle Bay is an owner-managed, integrated strategic brand consulting and design agency based in Munich. With clarity and creativity we help ambitious companies and entrepreneurs to discover, define, design and bring to life their unique identity – to create strong brands as the compass and catalyst of entrepreneurial change processes as well as attractive and differentiating brand experiences to win and retain customers and employees.
Truffle Bay is a member of bvik – Bundesverband Industrie Kommunikation e.V. Test