Our Approach

Purpose

Why do we even exist?

The Purpose is the ‘Why’.

The business’s North Star: the ultimate reason why it exists. What it aims to achieve in the world and for people generally.

Overview

Like a North Star, a Purpose isn’t a destination, but a perpetual guide for the business and its leadership.

At its best, defining an organisation’s purpose involves a transformational journey that draws from fields such as philosophy, psychology and economics.

Entire careers, organisations and books have dealt with and evolved this notion. These pages can only scratch the surface – and look at the concept of purpose from a purely strategic and structural point of view. A deep collaboration with clients and their constituents is particularly relevant, and further reading is strongly recommended.

What makes a strong Purpose?

It is more than a statement – it expresses a sufficiently focused, authentic human yearning.

More than a statement: There is a major difference between a purpose and a purpose statement. A purpose is a deeply rooted belief with a decisive impact on the business’s decision making; it is then summarised into a statement solely to create clarity and inspiration around it. We should never be “writing a purpose”, but defining one by working with our clients’ leadership. The reality is that many businesses have a purpose statement – far fewer actually live by a purpose.

Human: A strong purpose should be rooted in an irrefutable human truth.

A strong purpose should not invite a further ‘yes… but why?’. Nike’s purpose to “move the world forward… by building community, protecting our planet and increasing access to sport.” identifies an ultimate aim.

Focused: A strong purpose is focused, but with sufficient latitude. A purpose that is rooted in a human truth will be by definition too broad to be, in and of itself, unique. Its function is not to create differentiation, but direction. It should therefore define a role to play. Moleskine’s purpose to “contribute to the expansion and dissemination of culture and knowledge” isn’t what makes the brand unique – it does, however, define a clear role that has sufficient breadth.

Authentic: A strong purpose should be authentic to the way the business operates and makes money. It should be sharp enough to act as a filter, draw a line and override profit in decisions. As DDB founder Bill Bernbach observed, “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” Beware of purposes that are too vague or bland to do that. A strong purpose creates forks in the road.

Yearning: A strong purpose will transcend technologies, sectors and categories. Take, for instance, Microsoft’s purpose to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” A strong purpose will stay unchanged as the business evolves; in fact, it should guide the way it changes.

How do we approach this?

A strong Purpose is usually underpinned by three key dimensions, which ensure it is sufficiently elevated and universal – but, equally, focused and credible.

In essence, a brand pursues an Ethos by playing a certain Role in a given Field. If the Ethos gives the Purpose height and breadth, the Field and Role provide focus and credibility.

These dimensions help unpack and guide the conversation around Purpose – and develop a well thought through one.

ETHOS

What is the single irrefutable truth at the heart of the purpose? Fairness? Progress? Equity? Justice? What is the needle that the organisation aspires to move? What is the wrong it wants to right?

This defines the single ethical conviction that is dearest to its leadership. If it were for the organisation, what would the world be more like?

An important source for this is given by the UNDP 17 Sustainable Development Goals – what are we credibly focusing on? Remember, no one can seriously be guided by more than a couple of these fundamental goals.

Note: this will be a universal truth. So in defining this dimension, don’t pursue differentiation at all costs, but authenticity.

FIELD

What is the field of action through which the organisation can make a difference? What will be its sphere of influence?

This defines the organisation’s latitude, making the purpose elevated enough, without being vague.

Note: strike a sweet spot – identify a field that is broad enough to rise above fast-changing categories, technologies and benefits, but is sufficiently defined to be meaningful.

ROLE

What is the role that the organisation can credibly aspire to play in its field to pursue its ethos?

What role can the organisation credibly play within that field? This defines the part organisation will play – a kind of archetype.

Note: define a role that is sufficiently incisive, but – equally – credible.

Dos & Donts

Don’t try to jump straight into copywriting a statement. Make sure you’re clear on the concept and logic first.

Use a Co-Create/Crystallise/Copywrite process. Use co-creative sessions to discuss and determine the brand’s Ethos, Field and Role; once there’s clarity and consensus around these, crystallise them into a consistent narrative; once that is in place, you should be in a good position to build a concise and effective statement.

Examples

Ferrari

“To create timeless icons of passion and human achievement”

ETHOS: progress
FIELD: self-realisation
ROLE: maker

GE Healthcare

“To create a world where healthcare has no limits”

ETHOS: health, wellbeing, inclusion
FIELD: medical tech
ROLE: innovator

Microsoft

“Empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”

ETHOS: inclusion
FIELD: productivity
ROLE: empowerer

Interbrand

“To inspire growth for all”

ETHOS: equity
FIELD: personal & business growth
ROLE: inspirer

Tools & Techniques

Let’s go on a march!

WHAT: Let’s go on a march! is a generative exercise that help teams identify the kernel of a brand’s purpose. Imagine a parallel world in which the brand is holding a march, a mass demonstration or a protest vigil, attended by brand-believers*

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HOW: Ask yourselves

  • What beliefs would the marchers want to shout about?
  • What would they be standing up for / against?
  • What provocations and challenges to the “system” would they make?
  • What slogans would they hold up for the world to see?

*Pick your top 2-3 slogans and capture them on your Let’s go on a march! boards and get ready to share-back with the wider group.

TOP TIPS:

  • Keep the slogans short and simple and expressed as imperatives​
  • Show or share some examples from actual protest marches as inspiration
The Enemy

WHAT: The Enemy is a thought experiment exercise that employs the concept of via negative to help teams define what they are for (their Purpose) by first identifying what they are against.

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HOW: Make a list of the obvious “enemies” of the brand (e.g. direct competitors) – this is to get them out the way. Now start thinking a bit more laterally.

  • Who/what is your enemy?
  • Who/what are you happy to upset?
  • Who/what would the world have less of if were up to you
  • What movements or cultural zeitgeists do you vehemently oppose?
  • What are you the “anti” of? (e.g. Anti-Conformity; Anti-Groupthink)

EXAMPLE:

  • “We’re the enemy of___[XYZ]____because_____”
  • “We’re in the___anti-[XYZ]____because_____”
  • “We oppose___[XYZ]____because_____”

Pick your top 2-3 get ready to share-back with the wider group.

TOP TIPS:

  • Encourage participants to be expansive in their thinking and to suspend judgement for the time-being ​
  • It’s OK to flex the language – the constructs are just a guide
What business are we in?

WHAT: What market are we in? is a generative exercise that helps teams escape their existing frame of reference to imagine a playing field far bigger than their current category or industry definition.

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HOW: Imagine that it’s 5 years from now. Free from current constraints, generate a long list of statements using the following construct.​

“We’re not in the ___[XYZ]___business,

We’re in the ____[ABC]____business”

EXAMPLE:

  • “We’re not in the Railroad business, We’re in the Transportation business”
  • “We’re not in the Running Shoe business, We’re in the Human Achievement business”

TOP TIPS:

  • Keep generating statements, don’t worry if they’re not perfect or sound strange for now​
  • Be deliberatively provocative and expansive​
  • For the second part of the statement, use Arena Thinking and Fundamental Human Motivations as stimulus ​
Person from Mars

WHAT: Person from Mars is a generative role-play exercise that helps teams boil down into simple, human language what it is they actually do and why anyone should care about it – in other words the brand Purpose.

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HOW: Imagine that a business delegation has just landed from Mars – they’re interested in doing some intergalactic trade, but unfortunately have trouble understanding what businesses on earth do.  ​

Business/brand team – you start by describing what it is you do, who you are, what you offer etc. using single sentences: “Here at BrandInc we____”​

After each sentence, the Martians get to butt in and ask clarifying and why questions picking apart each word used: what does XYZ mean, why do you do that, why do people care about that? And keeps asking…and why is that  important?​

Top tips

  • Pick a team to role-play your business/brand and a second team to play the Martian business delegation. Session facilitators should capture the responses on a flipchart
  • Encourage the Martians to play dumb and keep asking why questions (remember, the Martians don’t speak business-jargon) ​
  • For theatre (and fun) give out props & costumes/accessories (e.g. Googly-eye headbands)