If you’re old enough, and I’m alarmed to admit that I am, you’ll remember the heyday of the mission statement. The mission statement was a clear, declarative statement of what a company did, would do, and how it would go about doing it. It was built from the ground up. Teams were assembled to help craft it. Yes, it would be framed and mounted on the head office lobby wall, but it would permeate every aspect of how the company did business henceforth.
Arguably it worked. If the mission statement was a true reflection of the values and ambitions of a company’s workforce, if it pointed a direction forward that was ethical as well as profitable, if it was founded on a solid understanding of the marketplace, if senior management bought into it and reinforced it in its decision-making, there is every reason to believe the mission-driven company would outperform its peers.
But we don’t do mission statements anymore. We do purpose, and that’s different. Or is it?
A great deal has been written to distinguish purpose from mission, purpose from vision. When that much effort is devoted to show that “A” is unlike “B”, it’s a bad sign. Principally, the argument seems to be that while mission is crafted from the point of view of the brand, purpose is crafted from the point of view of the consumer. But that doesn’t make the two statements different from each other. They describe the same thing, from two different points of view. Purpose naturally leans toward more florid language, but in most cases it’s just mission statement in a fancier frock. They are differences in form, not substance.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and much of that thinking galvanized as I read “Discoverng Brand Purpose: A playbook for uncovering the “why” of your business”, published this summer by the Association of National Advertisers. That publication conveniently gathered together several of what the ANA describes as declarations of brand purpose:
“To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” (Tesla)
“To create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, providing healthy travel that is local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable.” (Airbnb)
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” (Google)
“To help the world run better and improve people’s lives.” (SAP)
“To release the natural power of stone to enrich modern living” (Rockwool Group)
There are several others, and to my ear, they all sound a lot like mission statements. In the cases of Tesla, Airbnb and Google, that’s precisely what they are according to the three brands’ own websites. SAP and Rockwool declare theirs to be statements of purpose, but I’ll argue that they fall well short of that.
Why does this matter? Because there can be a purpose to purpose, just not the purpose often given to it. Purpose, when properly framed, unites a brand and consumers in the pursuit of a common objective. The objective is clear, measurable and time-constrained. Most importantly, it cannot be achieved by the brand alone. Success requires that consumers rally behind the brand. Because of that, purpose carries an inherent risk of failure, and it is that risk of failure that will enlist like-minded consumers not merely as brand advocates willing to applaud the effort, but as brand allies willing share in the risk.
Consider Nestlé, which declared in 2018 that it would help 50 million children lead healthier lives by 2030 through the support of local communities and their health promotion goals. The goal is noble. There’s a hard number to aim at: 50 million children’s lives. There’s a deadline: 2030. And there is a real risk of failure. Nestlé cannot do this on its own. It needs the support of local communities, and that serves as the foundation for an appeal to consumers to join the brand in its quest.
Most importantly, though, it prefaces a story that Nestlé will narrate over the following 12 years. Whether the story succeeds in rallying consumers behind the brand will depend on the effort Nestlé puts behind the purpose and its effectiveness as a narrator of the unfolding story.
I could cite several other examples, but I’ll save them for later blogs. I’ll conclude this post with one final point: Because purpose serves as the foundation for a narrative, its effectiveness in rallying consumers is not dependent on success. If the goal is noble and challenging, and the effort is genuine, the market will forgive failure.