Are we missing the point of ‘purpose’?

Corporate social responsibility is on the minds of consumers and employees alike, but co-opted (or feigned) values are more of a detriment than an attribute, the author posits.

With January having limped to an un-mourned end, we can wave sheepishly goodbye to the new beginnings, dietary restrictions and idealized versions of ourselves we committed to as 2020 dawned.

Yet whatever level of control we fondly believe we have over our personal lives, nothing can match the confidence of the predictions we apply to the world of work at this time of year.

With this being the turn not just of a new year but a new decade, the breadth and scope of the pronouncements have been satisfyingly broad.

Predictions include everything from the demise of human-mediated communication in the face of a new AI age to a return of a long-lost golden era of creative craft.

Has ‘purpose’ run its course?

However provocative or farfetched the fortune telling, one theme seems to unite all commentators as the foundational truth of this century’s third decade: We’ve reached “peak purpose.”

It’s perhaps understandable that the humble, hardworking majority of us are quick to celebrate the passing of this particular obsession.

Most of us are not spearheading a celebrity-studded campaign riding the latest wave of cultural consciousness. Instead, we’re working hard every day to deliver commercial outcomes for equally pressured clients.

In these circumstances, the view that much of the recent tsunami of what has been dubbed “woke washing” is an indulgent distraction from the job at hand is perfectly forgivable.

Yet to see it in such a way is arguably to misunderstand what “purpose” really means.

The Nike mission

Nike is an oft-cited example of a brand for which a single-minded sense of purpose has been incredibly successful. Most of you will have encountered the expression of the mission before: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world (*if you have a body, you are an athlete).”

I’ve heard it said that it’s “easy” for a sportswear business like Nike to arrive at an expression like this, whereas for other more complex businesses it just isn’t practical.

I’m not so sure, although no doubt it’s easier for some than for others. The more important lesson from Nike is, however, that we all accept that its purpose need have nothing to do with social good. Positive social outcomes may arise from it, sure—but that’s not the starting point.

The dawn of introspection?

I’m not sure quite where this idea of “purpose” being a synonym for “doing good” arose, but I am certain it’s done us no good. Perhaps it was a manifestation of the self-reflection that took place after the long spree that preceded the 2008 financial crash.

It was certainly around that time that the more consciously progressive work began to dominate the Cannes limelight. (The Great Schlep, Dumb Ways to Die, the Ice Bucket Challenge, ‘Like a Girl’—all brilliant, deserving examples of winners—spring to mind.)

Whatever the genesis or the rationale, it’s somehow become an accepted fact that all businesses should be striving for a reason for existence which, on some level, is all about leaving the world a better place.

When faced with that kind of next-to-impossible brief, it’s no wonder the industry is indulging in a collective eyeroll.

Back when I worked on Nike in the U.K., it was in the almost unimaginable time when the brand had yet to occupy a dominant position in football—soccer in U.S. parlance. With a mission to become the world’s biggest football brand and a recognition that there was some ground to make up, the company began not with words, but with action.

A second shot at glory

One of the initiatives I’m most proud of being part of was called Most Wanted: Young, talented footballers who may have missed out on clubs’ scouting rounds were given a second chance at recognition—and a shot at a footballing career.

These kinds of campaigns were repeated at the local level all over the world, directly engaging millions of players and fans and providing them something of value. Thus it was that by the time the brand produced its seminal “Write the Future” film for the 2010 World Cup, it had earned the right to speak to the hopes of every player and fan.

Compare that against the much-derided Pepsi spot in which Kendall Jenner somehow made the casting cut as the person most qualified to represent a global countercultural wave of activism.

Without any track record of action or engagement with youth protest, how could this be received as anything other than a (perhaps well-intended) attempt to profit from others’ values and effort?

As more brands have repeated this mistake (albeit on a less grand scale), the call to put an end to purpose and refocus instead on the real stuff (like shifting units) has grown ever louder.

Co-opting ‘purpose’

Aren’t we pointing the finger in the wrong place? It’s not that it’s wrong to have a purpose. It’s wrong to borrow a purpose. In a world of total transparency, nothing brings the consumer commentariat to boil faster than the whiff of hypocrisy.

I am all for 2020 representing the end of an era when brand virtue signaling was a shortcut to awards and a sugar rush of attention. Not all companies exist to do good, but they all exist to do something.

The sooner we all learn to love the people and the brands we are 11 months of the year, rather than the ones we wish we were for four weeks every January, the more peace and prosperity we’ll have to go around next year.

Nick Bailey is the creative partner and CEO at futurefactor.

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