Reverse engineering purpose onto your organisation, can it work?

‘Purpose’ is hot and so is purpose-marketing. Earlier this week, SWOCC hosted a fully-booked event to present Esther Overmars and Amber Kouwen’s new publication #89 ‘Purpose oriëntatie’. In this publication, the authors mapped out the definition of this and created a helpful framework for organisations to incorporate it in their business in a meaningful way.

One of the conclusions they make is that purpose is not only a corporate buzzword, but “A transformative force for companies to contribute to solutions for people, society and/or the environment”.

This is true for organisations whose existence is founded on a product or service that offers a societal or environmental benefit. But can a newly found purpose really transform companies that were not established with these missions at their core? In other words, if you didn’t have a purpose to start with, can you find it, actually make it happen, and convince consumers?

Uninvited speaker

Philip Morris, the big tobacco company, was originally invited to speak on their transformation into a company with a purpose (creating a smoke-free world, allegedly). The speaker was eventually uninvited from the event as the programming choice created backlash. While understandable that SWOCC did not want ‘smoking and cigarettes’ to become the issue of the debate, rather than the topic of purpose orientation, it was a shame not to hear Philip Morris’ pitch.

The response to inviting Philip Morris emphasizes the fact that ‘purpose marketing’ is not convincing if purpose is not embedded in the product that the company is known for. And for a company with a reputation like that of Philip Morris, it will be very difficult to convince consumers, activists, and the press, otherwise.

Banking for better?

The speaker for ABN Amro at the event, Remco Herremans, a brand strategist for the bank, was there to discuss how purpose is not simply an ‘uithangbord’ for the organisation. In fact, ABN Amro has been spending the last five years trying to define its’ purpose. What it has come up with is that they “Have a clear purpose: ‘Banking for better, for generations to come’”. You would be hard pressed to understand how they define banking for better, or how they aim to achieve that while reading their short page about purpose. They state that they “aim to achieve responsible growth”, but without any explanation on what they mean by responsible growth. Perhaps the video on this page explains it better, but unfortunately it is not working at the time of writing.

Again, without a clear link between purpose and product, a coherent and compelling strategy is difficult to define and communicate.

Attracting talent

According to Nadienske de Vries, speaking at the event on behalf of Vattenfall, sustainability is their business strategy. As they have received (what they deem to be unfair) criticism from activist groups and the press, they have focused inwards. By making sure their team members are aligned but also well-versed on the purpose of their brand, but also informed on the perspective of Vattenfall on the public criticisms. According to Ms de Vries, their mission to become fossil-free within one generation resonates very well with their own people and is a core attraction for new talent.

Purpose is linked to product

The last speaker, Niels Pel of Plinkr, made a clear case for purpose being integrally tied to product. With a background in purpose marketing and position, he understands the value of communicating purpose. But he made it very clear that purpose stems from product. If a product does not aim to solve a societal, environmental, or other important problem, then a purpose is very difficult to retrofit. The product of Plinkr helps citizens become debt-free with the help of social workers as well as technology. The mission of improving lives is inherent in the product, which makes the communication of purpose all the more convincing.

Purpose washing

As Esther Overmars says, “Als authenticiteit ontbreekt en blijkt dat in de bestuurskamer de prioriteiten anders liggen, volgt al snel het stempel ‘purpose washing’.” And this will happen when purpose is reverse engineered to an organization or product, rather than being part of its conception and product. As we saw in the case of Philip Morris being uninvited, without an authentic mission that is supported by product, purpose is just words.

As Future of Food Institute, we see this in consumer research too. When brands want to scream their purpose from their rooftops (because of how proud they are of the work they do), consumers become more sceptical and try to poke holes in the ‘purpose’ story. And not only consumers – activist groups, and media outlets too. What we see in practice is that the more you talk about your ethical, benevolent, world-altering mission, the more people will dig to find your hypocrisies and where you have failed. When something looks too good to be true, people become more critical.

Purpose in crisis

In her closing speech, director of SWOCC, Lotte referred to (and disagreed with) a quote by WARC ‘Purpose is dead’. Purpose may not be dead, but it is in crisis.

With every new brand standing up for a cause, brands that are actual game changers become just another number. Consumers can’t always (instantly) separate the chaff from the wheat, but, sooner or later, purpose washing becomes evident. Unfortunately, real purpose-driven organizations who cannot tell a good story are sometimes thrown away with the bathwater.


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