The problem with Purpose

Here goes

I have an issue with the P-word. There, I’ve said it. 

As one of the most frequently used words in modern marketing, a regular staple for many a blog, and with few marketing conventions not flying the purpose flag in some way or another, I’m aware I’m venturing into controversial territory.

But bear with me, there’s positivity aplenty in this post.

Purpose is powerful

By definition, purpose is simply about having a reason for doing something. 

In business it provides a clarity of direction and focus essential to building successful brands, and a yardstick against which to measure progress – a motivator in itself.

It gives work meaning. A reason to keep going beyond the pay cheque, that brings people together in a way that shared goals do, harnessing the full potential of teams.

Everyone knows the story of John F. Kennedy and his visit to the NASA space centre in the early sixties. He asked a janitor what he was doing, and received the famous reply, ‘Well Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon’.  It’s human nature to want to belong and be part of something, and purpose is the glue.

So too, there is significant external value in having clarity of purpose. In a world where meaningful product differentiation is increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain, a compelling, well-told, brand story can be the difference between success and failure. Purpose is often the most important ingredient in the best of those stories. 

I’m a believer

Heck, I should be. At mark-making* we’ve got a purpose of our very own. One that goes way back and has gone unchanged.

We help others make their mark. That’s it. Simple as that. 

When we talk about ‘others’, first and foremost we mean our clients – the ambitious organisations we work with, utilising our particular creative skillset to realise their full potential. You could say we’re in the business of helping our clients deliver on their purpose.

mark-making*s purpose works on different levels too. It’s not limited solely to the organisations themselves. We try hard to help individuals within those organisations to be successful in their own roles, to make their own personal marks.

There’s an important internal spin to our purpose as well. It’s always mattered to us as an agency that our people, the mark-makers, thrive and achieve whatever making their mark means to them. For some that might be a desire to manage and lead teams, for others it might be to fully master a particular creative discipline.

As part of our goodmarks* agenda, we also devote time and resources to support causes, organisations and businesses doing good things, particularly within our local community, who may not otherwise be able to afford our services.

But above all our focus has to be on helping our client organisations make their mark. Yes, the other elements are important and undoubtedly contribute to overall success, but the simple reality is that if we don’t make a difference to our clients’ businesses we have no business, and none of the other good stuff can happen. 

My problem?

The meaning of purpose has been hijacked. Within marketing circles, a gradual rebranding of the word has taken place. Barely perceptible, you’d be forgiven for missing it.

Purpose has become shorthand for social purpose. When we talk about businesses having purpose, there is an expectation for that purpose to include a chunky dollop of greater good. 

Thankfully, there are brands genuinely changing lives for the better in fantastic and measurable ways. However, the reality is that not every business can save the world, neither does every business have to. The problem with purpose and social purpose being joined at the hip, is the implication that purpose in its purest sense is not valuable or enough. So two things happen. 

We see inauthentic, unsubstantiated purposes everywhere. Businesses making claims and presenting reasons for existence they will never live up to. Nobody benefits from that. The case for purpose as meaningless, disingenuous fluff, just gets stronger. 

At the same time there are countless businesses that would benefit enormously (in the ways highlighted earlier) from clearly defining their purpose, yet don’t see it as applicable to them, mistakenly believing that without an overtly worthy element it is somehow less valuable. So they don’t try.

And taking that a step further, when purpose is read as social purpose, commercial purpose becomes a pariah. The inference is that commercial purpose – a single-minded commitment to selling a quality product or service in order to make money – is somehow distasteful and not a good thing. That successfully meeting a consumer need and making a profit in the process is not something to be proud of or applauded, when it absolutely should be. Jobs are created, security is provided, money is earned, money is spent, the economy thrives, society benefits. 

No profit, no business, no potential force for good.

It’s not what you do

Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly believe businesses have a responsibility to do good, and balance profit alongside people and the planet. It’s the right thing to do, and the fact is businesses that do good do well. If I didn’t believe that, we’d not have spent the last year at mark-making* getting our house in order to become a B Corp.

My point is where that good comes from. When we place too much of a social element on purpose, we limit its potential as a driver of business success, and we overlook the positive impact any business can have simply through how it operates.

If the burden of responsibility is on purpose to do the ‘good’, we miss the real opportunity to make a meaningfully positive difference through not what we do (and why), but how we do it.

Every business can strive to operate in a way that is sustainable and has a beneficial impact on the environment and society.

So please, absolutely define your brand’s purpose. Just don’t get hung up on worthiness and don’t be ashamed of making money from it. You have to.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.