No-one really cares about your purpose - Start with why NOT
Your purpose is meaningless unless you do something with it. Your WHY is just a question unless you turn it into an answer — you put it into action, you put it to work. The danger of stopping at WHY is that you just have an intention, instead of creating real, positive impact. Consumers, employees, and investors can tell whether you are serious about turning your WHY into action, or whether you are falling behind the expectations you raised. Two companies – Coca Cola and Patagonia – have shown very different approaches to filling their WHY with life. One stopped at WHY, the other one asked ‘why NOT’.
Purpose needs to be more than a mere marketing tool
Unfortunately, purpose has become such a widely applied concept that it has partly degenerated into a buzzword that people roll their eyes at. Or worse: what’s being communicated as purpose is often really only a polished veneer wrapped around a less noble core, to make a business more attractive for talent, investors, or the wider public. Purpose is being used to environmentally and socially greenwash companies, trying to cover up the downsides of their actions, or in-actions.
One infamous example is the Coca-Cola Company. Their purpose reads “Refresh the world. Make a difference.” As part of making a difference, the company has been partnering with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) since 2007, in what they call a water stewardship, “to help ensure healthy, thriving freshwater basins around the world”, as it reads on the company website. At the same time, Coca-Cola has been accused of zero progress on reducing plastic waste, after repeatedly being named the world’s top plastic polluter. Making a difference?
What people really care about is impact.
No-one cares about your purpose! Your purpose is just an intent. Something you aim for, something you want to achieve, contribute, overcome. No-one cares about purpose any more. Corporate purpose statements are often just marketing claims, trying to make a company look good at first sight. The moment you start looking behind the surface, peeling off the veneer, you realise reality might look very different. That is why employees and consumers are fed up with hollow purpose statements. Instead, people care about real contributions, about making a visible, measurable impact. Actions speak louder than words. Results matter more than intent. Impact trumps purpose.
Welcome to the age of the impact investor, the activist employee and the informed consumer.
We increasingly hold brands and companies accountable for what they do or say, how they position themselves during times of social upheaval, political instability and environmental emergencies. As consumers, we make companies feel the consequences of violating our own belief systems and values, and stop buying their products. As employees, we might get attracted by shiny purpose statements, but will soon leave if we realise that we are just stuck in another corporate machine that doesn’t deliver on its promises. As investors, we don’t want dirty money in our hands, made from investments in companies that pollute the environment, exploit workers, lie to us, or are being unprofessionally governed allowing management to get away with shady behaviour.
Start with why NOT
Finding your purpose matters. Your intent matters. However, you shouldn’t start with why. You should start with asking: “why NOT?”. Why should we not do the right thing now? Why should we not stop doing the things we know aren’t helping? Why should we not put people first, profit second? Why should we not use our market position and purchasing power to positively impact social standards, protect the environment, and stand up for the good cause? Why should we continue to act like cowards and shy away from speaking up as an organisation? Why not do good, i.e. the right thing, while doing well? Why not?!
Purpose matters. Good intentions matter. But what matters more is that we all start asking ourselves “why not?”. It is when we ask this question that we allow ourselves, our colleagues, our companies, to think again, beyond the obvious, beyond money, and to really make a difference, to matter, to build a legacy. If you want your intent to be more than just a hollow phrase, you need to put your money where your mouth is.
The size and potential of your “Why NOT” can be considerable
How many resources should you channel toward your “why NOT”? Well, first of all, we should understand “why NOT” as a way to actually make more money, rather than costing money. There is a business case in doing the right thing as countless examples have shown, where companies, large and small, tap into new markets, open new revenue streams, or access larger new client groups – by changing how they conduct business.
Unilever considerably grew their profit from Lipton Tea after they had established more sustainable practices – environmental and social – throughout their supply chain. They linked their sustainability efforts to their existing marketing spend and attracted a whole new group of conscious consumers.
The bigger a company is, the higher they should aim with their “why NOT”. The more money a corporation makes, the more they must strive to offset their negative impact – and to do the right things. Their sustainability and ESG practices must reflect how serious they take their “why NOT”.
For the Coca-Cola Company, this could be nothing short of completely surrendering the use of new materials for their packaging, and instead go for 100% recycled. It doesn’t have to stop there: why NOT become carbon neutral now, why NOT educate people about the health implications of sugary drinks, why NOT reconfigure the supply chain based on social and environmental sustainability?
Your why NOT yields better financial performance
How can we tap into new business opportunities following our “why NOT”? It’s easier than some might think. The possibilities are endless. For-profit organisations just haven’t dared enough yet to ask “why NOT”. Forward thinking businesses are entering the market space tapping into the vast potential of sustainable entrepreneurship, from circular economy to green energy. They are fast, innovative, and dare to explore and experiment. If you want to do the right thing, you can! The business case will follow!
For larger organisations, the board of directors plays a crucial role. They might want to nudge their companies into the right direction. Linking the salary of executives to impact rather than financial performance alone might be a good step to generate a strong “why NOT” and reshape the business into a future-fit, sustainable organisation.
Why should you do that? Well, apart from doing the right thing from a sustainability perspective, it also pays off financially. In its 2021 poll, Axios Harris surveyed close to 43,000 Americans to discover which brands they think falter or excel in society. Coca-Cola tanked and lost 17 ranks from the previous survey, now #58.
On the other hand, apparel company Patagonia soared from number 32 to the top spot because of its unwavering commitment to the environment. A central theme in its brand purpose, the company is creating real impact, living up to its intent. Over decades, Patagonia has been attracting loyal customers, adding to their sales, supporting the causes Patagonia is fighting for. Beyond Patagonia, research has proven the positive correlation of strong sustainability and ESG practices of an organisation and its financial performance.
So, what about you? Why NOT turn your company into a force for sustainability both social and environmental? Why NOT formulate a purpose that is really grand and idealistic? Why NOT create real positive impact? I dare you to stop thinking small. Why NOT?
Main image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash