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What exactly is the purpose of Purpose?

by Lisa D'Amico

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Purpose seems to be the raison d’etre for organisations today. Thanks to Simon Sinek our ‘why’ has gained almost obsessive evangelism in business. It’s touted as the way to recruit talent, inspire employees, build profits, contribute to society and even solve problems our governments can’t address.The thing is, it all starts to sound terribly confusing amongst all the other business lexicon that feels like too many words.

Purpose = Market Positioning

Purpose is what once upon a time was called Market Positioning. Doesn’t sound so sexy, but vitally important and it was a critical aspect of business when Marketing was sitting at the board room table, discussing ‘the market’ and customer. Times change and language changes, however it feels as though this concept has fallen away and what we are left with is something rather vague and nebulous, however well meaning.

A while ago, Mark Ritson wrote about the ‘three C’s’ as the acid test of positioning – customer, company and competition. Your ‘position’ needs to be something your customer wants, it needs to be something that your organisation can deliver and you need to be able to deliver this in a way that is different or distinctive to others in the market.

Revisiting Simon Sineks ‘Start with Why’, is this so different? If you take a deeper look at what he is saying (in the book, not just the Youtube video) it is really more a refreshed and evolved view of market positioning.   

WHY
We have all heard ‘people buy why you do things not what you do’. Why is about defining your ‘cause’ or your belief, it’s what you stand for and importantly why your ideal customer should care. For a successful ‘why’ your customer must care about the same things you care about.  You must share the same belief to make traction. In advertising speak, it’s about making an emotional connection.  Connecting on something deeper than functional benefits or features.

WHAT
Of course, this is about the innovation and delivery or your products/services. This might not be something a customer loves (do I really love my banking products or my electricity?) however I buy them and they serve a need.  Your ‘what’ must be something that your company can deliver consistently whether this means product performance, services delivered and the intangibles like culture, people and brand.

HOW
How you execute in the marketplace is your differentiator and how you effectively compete. This is based on the organisation’s values, ethics and principles that guide actions and decisions on a day to day basis and the discipline in maintaining your ‘why’.

Purpose is focussed on the wrong thing
The thing that is missed in all this talk of Purpose is the inter-relationships and alignment required to pull it off, and this is fundamentally why we need to revisit and focus on market positioning.

While it’s important to articulate, your ‘why’ it isn’t everything. On its own, it’s all talk without the walk. To put it another way, it’s the emperors new clothes.

Your purpose [why] without the consistency of product innovation, development and delivery [what] and the discipline of maintaining your values and principles [how] is just rhetoric.

You only need to watch the Netflix documentary Fyre to see what happens when you are all sizzle and no sausage.

Or think of Facebook who through the process of scaling, have seen their people values and behaviours change. They can continue to speak of Purpose but their ‘how’ is eroding as I write.

Truth be told, if there is anything that business should be focussed on right now is on ‘HOW’. Holding people in organisations accountable for how we make decisions and how we execute is by far the hardest part of this holy trilogy but also the most rewarding.

When you can get all three aligned, your why, what and how, Ritson’s 3C’s of Customer, Company and Competition is when the magic happens. This is where those famous brands we love to quote come to the fore - Apple, Nike, Patagonia, etcetera. Getting it right engenders trust and builds strong, sustainable and profitable business.

Business doesn’t need shiny new Purpose, we need to build trust. This takes a village to build and strong and strategic marketers working closely with CEO’s and their Boards to carefully articulate and manage an organisations market position.

Lisa D’Amico brings with her a fresh perspective built on a stellar brand, innovation and marketing career. She has held global leadership roles for Aesop and luxury conglomerate LVMH in the wine business in addition to senior management roles in creative agencies including DDB, Wunderman and Y&R

This post first appeared on the Square Holes blog