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Jul 11, 2023
Alex Lewis
The Purpose Transformation
20 years ago a digital transformation began. What started as a channel soon morphed into a mindset. Successful businesses embraced this transformation in every aspect, in from their supply chains to their marketing. Today the same evolution is happening with the advent of Purpose.
Why Purpose is both opportunity and obligation
The boardroom has its own culture war—Purpose. Those stoking the debate rarely arrive without an agenda, whether it’s an investor demanding change, a journalist chasing headlines or a leader seeking profile.

Most of the arguments from both sides ignore the complexity of corporate reputation and brand building. The fact is purpose can be both an effective tool and a distracting exercise. Purpose isn’t the enemy, but the polarity of the analysis most certainly is.

Of course, we’ve been here before. In the early naughties a debate raged in the marketing community about a new fad—digital. Clients, creatives and commentators were quick to proclaim the emerging channels as both saint and sinner.

We all know what happened over the next 20 years as digital moved from being a channel to a tactic to a mindset that no business was immune to. Which isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of losers along the way. But its significance and permanence is reinforced by the fact digital transformation has sat as the number one concern of both CEO’s and CMO’s for years.

Purpose transformation should be seen in a similar light; a threat and an opportunity that can’t be ignored. The winners will be those that know how and when to apply it by recognising three things.
1. Business Purpose isn’t optional.
The British Academy defines Purpose ‘producing profitable solutions from tackling the problems of people and planet, whilst not profiting from creating them’. Much of the debate has focussed on the first half of this statement, where purpose is seen as equally responsible for breakneck growth or underwhelming performance depending on your persuasion.

But it’s just as much the second half of that definition that ensures purpose is here to stay. As our society’s values evolve, and as our environmental threats intensify, we will see that Purpose isn’t a phase. And the demands of stakeholders, employees and investors are enough to ensure that certain ESG standards are no longer negotiable.
2. Brand Purpose very much is.
Conversely, adopting a brand Purpose isn’t mandatory. It’s best viewed as a strategic choice that should be adopted if Purpose is judged as an effective tactic to drive growth. That means understanding whether that positive impact can drive more reach, create more powerful emotions, build more memorable assets or get the brand more noticed.

Choosing not build a brand through Purpose does not make it unethical. There remain certain standards of inclusivity and sustainability that every brand should subscribe to, and just because many of these commitments aren’t visible to consumers doesn’t mean they shouldn’t adopted.

3. Purpose has to be done properly.
Conviction in a Purpose led approach can’t come at the expense of business fundamentals. Purpose won’t solve every challenge (just as it shouldn’t be used as the scapegoat for poor performance when other factors are at play). Successful application comes down to a rigour and responsibility that asks not just whether Purpose is the right tool, but how that tool should applied. Is it:

Evidence based. How do we know this Purpose creates positive associations with our audience? Brand led. How do we apply this Purpose through the unique lens of our brand? Impact driven. Have we made a measurable different that justifies our communications?

Not every business and brand that makes positive impact part of their operations will reap the benefits. Just as we have seen throughout the digital revolution, the era of Purpose transformation will see many expensively assembled mistakes along the way. The winners will be those with the foresight to grab the opportunity and the veracity to ensure it’s seized the right way.
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