The Association of National Advertisers held its 100-year anniversary convention recently, and the headline in Advertising Age caught my attention. It said:
Purpose-Driven Marketing All the Rage at ANA
Over the past few years, as the concept of brand purpose has gained currency among high-profile marketers, I've noticed that Ad Age has seemed a bit conflicted about the whole idea. To my ear, the phrase "all the rage" contains a subtle dig, suggesting that purpose is a passing fad among starry-eyed marketing types. Of course, even if my suspicion is correct, Ad Age couldn't say that directly because those starry-eyed marketing types are its most important audience.
If there is a disconnect, I think it arises out of a chicken-or-egg debate about the purpose of commercial enterprises in general. There are those who argue that the ultimate purpose of any business (especially a publicly-owned corporation) is to make money for its owners. And there are those who point out--inconveniently--that businesses that seem to have a purpose over and above making money for their owners are often more effective at making money for their owners.
As with most of life's intractable puzzles, the only really useful way forward is to embrace the conflict. The conflict between money and purpose is a slightly narrower articulation of the conflict between the struggle to survive and the search for meaning. (See Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, about his experience surviving the concentration camps.) If your personal story is all about the struggle to make money for its own sake then life will eventually feel empty and bland. On the other hand, for most of us the search for meaning has to take place within the real world as we find it. As Jack Kornfield put it, in the title of his book about the search for spiritual fulfillment, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
To be as hard-nosed and pragmatic as possible, the purpose of purpose is threefold:
First: A clear sense of the meaning and purpose of the enterprise--a story framework--provides an organizing principle for everything a company chooses to do. That clarity of purpose will quickly reveal what is "in character" for an organization and what is not. That's why story is such a powerful tool for analyzing brands and shaping strategy.
Second: The authentic purpose behind a business is the best motivator for everyone who works there. As a senior marketer at a global food company once told me, "I would hate to think that I get up every morning for no other reason than to increase shareholder value for the owners of (fill in your favorite public corporation here)."
Third: A credible sense of purpose gives your customers an important reason to believe that you might be better at what you do than a competitor who is doing it just for the money. To its loyal fans, for example, Apple appears to be driven by an intense desire to make machines that seem to think like real people. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be driven largely by a need for power and control, which is a variation of the money story.
At the end of the day, a story is powerful if you believe it. A company that exists only to make money will inexorably drift toward commodity status. But if you and your colleagues all believe that you are making money in order to advance your efforts toward some more inspiring purpose, then you will be more effective, your customers will be pulling for you to succeed and, ironically, you will probably make more money.