What do we really mean by ‘purposeful’ business?

Truly purposeful brands can change the world while driving fantastic business results.

Michelle_Keaney

A recent article on Marketing Week reported the death of the ‘failed strategy’ of CSR. It argued that a new era of social purpose was emerging, with brands developing growth strategies geared towards a genuinely positive impact on society.

Whilst informative, the piece was confusing for marketing practitioners, as the examples given spanned a range of very different activities. Sustainability reports, strategic CSR and even marketing campaigns were all bundled together claiming to be “purpose”.

If purpose is defined as so many different things, does it start to become a little meaningless? And are we in danger of a new kind of ‘purpose-wash’, where brands claim to be ‘benefiting the world’ then just carrying on with business as usual?

Purpose vs Purposeful

Part of the problem is the seemingly interchangeable words of purpose and purposeful.

I see a difference between ‘having a business purpose’ and ‘being a purposeful business’. The former outlines the reason a business exists over and above simply ‘making money’ and is also sometimes known as the ‘Why’ or ‘Core Ideology’.

For example, a coffee brand might have a business purpose like: ‘To bring the world the greatest coffee’, without it being a purposeful business. Making the greatest coffee is a great ambition and will make a lot of people happy, but great coffee doesn’t exactly feature in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Of course, the ‘great coffee business’ could do wonderful things to treat its coffee farmers fairly, which shows that it’s possible for a business that is not ‘purposeful’ to still engage in extremely positive social and environmental activity. But this is a business which aims to reduce or manage the negative effects of its business practices, rather than a purposeful business.

A purposeful business is something quite different. It is a business that exists primarily to tackle a problem or challenge in the world in some specific way, and sees the sale of products and services as a vehicle for this positive change.

For a purposeful business, money represents freedom – the freedom to pursue a mission, to make a difference and to measurably and impactfully change lives. It is these businesses that tend to enjoy the biggest rewards of acting with purpose; higher staff productivity and retention, greater customer loyalty, improved regulatory relationships etc.

What does purposeful look like?

But what does a truly purposeful business look like? To illustrate, let’s look to the exemplary case of one of my favourite brands: Ella’s Kitchen.

From inception Ella’s has had a clear, authentic and measurable purpose: “To develop healthy eating habits that last a lifetime by offering a range of tasty, natural and healthy 100% organic foods for babies and kids, which are handy for mums and dads and fun for little ones.”

It stands for much more than creating great products, although as a staple of my daughter’s weaning regime I appreciated their ‘and-and’ approach to the role that a great product plays in realising a bold purpose.

To deliver this purpose, they have developed a strong internal culture; a clear set of values and behaviours that every employee understands and works towards. This leads to greater productivity and autonomy in their teams.

Their purpose and values are also visible to the outside world and they regularly engage customers with them, running activities and programmes to help parents wean their children more successfully onto healthy foods.

But they don’t stop at customers and employees. Their commitment to their purpose means influencing retailers, legislators and changing customer behaviour. They know it’s the right thing to do, so it’s a serious, measurable, long-term commitment.

Importantly, they don’t mark their own work and are validated by BCorp and The Forest Stewardship Council. They also work with the British Nutritional Foundation to publish research and effectiveness reports.

And of course, the resulting commercial success allows them to keep the mission going. Ella’s, now owned by FMCG group Hain Celestial, currently holds 20% share of the UK baby food market with a turnover of over $100m and the data suggests a baby is eating an Ella product every second of every day somewhere around the world.

The purpose journey

Of course, making this distinction isn’t a judgement – every brand is on its own purpose journey and not all have the ambition of being ‘purposeful’. But as Ella’s shows, just having a purpose statement, or claiming you are ‘making the world better’ isn’t enough. Customers and employees, indeed society, will be looking for the proof points of your purpose, and in particular the tough choices you have made along the way to protect it.

Because that’s what makes purposeful brands so magnetic – they are on a mission to improve the world and just by buying their products, or working in their marketing team, you could help them. It makes every interaction with them a little more meaningful, makes them envied places to work and delivers fantastic results.

This is my vision for the future of business, one where businesses grow, thrive and win by being a positive force in the world. And the more they do, the better the world will be for all of us.

Michelle Keaney is founder of Three Point Zero and partnership director at The Marketing Academy

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