What is purpose?
Sometimes it’s easier to define something by what it’s not.
Purpose is not positioning.
It’s not an advertising or communications strategy, or an employee engagement tool.
Purpose isn’t cause marketing, a CSR plan or corporate philanthropy.
While any or all of these things can come from purpose or, ideally, be built upon it, these things alone aren’t purpose.
Purpose is “why.”
It’s why companies are started. It’s why employees show up and give their all, why investors invest and, increasingly, why customers decide what to buy and whom to support.
Purpose isn’t something that results from a whitespace exercise, but something we unearth, articulate and then live up to.
In deciding to work with companies navigating this process, it’s sometimes difficult to explain the nuanced differences between what we mean by corporate purpose and what the marketing and brand industries make out of it.
As the foundation for building tools that tell a corporate story and engage with employees, customers and investors, purpose is invaluable. But it’s even more crucial in guiding how we run and grow businesses – and that’s where many companies building or deploying “purpose strategies” have lost their way.
Take Gillette’s recent “The Best a Man Can Be” for example. The brand’s efforts to demonstrate its purpose through a film and campaign that decried toxic masculinity were timely and well produced. As a brand that creates iconic products for men, defining masculinity in a changing culture seems relevant and on point. Topical and taking a position on a cause that relates to your customer base, but is it a purpose? Or just good advertising?
Some questions to consider: does this position or cause drive any of their product decisions? Has their stance on masculinity changed any of their hiring, training, policy or governance decisions? Have they based anything other than outward bound communications on this purpose? Maybe most importantly for a company and brand that’s been around for more than a century, does this purpose come from a place of truth and legacy for the brand?
While I don’t have an inside view of Gillette or its parent company, P&G, the external signs indicate that the answers to all these questions are “no” – and why “The Best a Man Can Be” is a solid marketing campaign and not a corporate purpose.
As an attention getting tool, this campaign worked for Gillette. As many noted, even if the comments were negative, the fact that media outlets and pundits were actually discussing Gillette made this a PR win. The real challenge is making it more than that.
If Gillette decides to use the discussion that ensued as an inflection point and build on its 100-plus year legacy of product innovation, it’s at the starting point of a real corporate purpose.
Rather than exploit a cultural moment, this purpose could guide the brand – and its employees and customers – through the evolution and change inherent in that moment. It would take a bigger commitment than a single campaign, but could build more sustainable brand engagement than a PR win, while showing the world The Best a Company Can Be.