Calling B.S. Part 5: Purpose

You Can't Define Purpose with a Grab Bag of Jargon

< The Full Batch of Calling B.S.

Browse a bookstore (there are still a few yet extant) or surf Amazon and you might come to the conclusion that “purpose” is the both most important concept in the 21st century lexicon and that the finding of the same is the paramount objective for work and life. From books like The Purpose Driven Life to zen lifestyle websites, everyone seems to be seeking a purpose. This is great news for new age spiritualist gurus, self-help book publishers and photographers of rainbows and meadows, but kind of depressing that so many do not seem to know what they are meant to do or why they should be doing it. Nietzsche told us all that God was dead over a century ago. Who knew that for many, 21st century salvation is as close as the Barnes & Noble self-help aisle?

There's a similar crisis of identity impacting organizations across the country. “Your company needs a purpose,” business gurus insist. “Without a purpose, no one will want to work for you or buy your products.” As Mitt Romney once famously asserted, corporations are people, my friend—or at least they are comprised of people. And people, as the successful sales of self-help books indicate, are indeed experiencing a crisis of purpose.


Of course, employees need to be engaged in their jobs, or they vote with their feet. So it does make sense that companies should try to spell out the “purpose” of their collective pursuit to keep employees engaged. Unfortunately, such statements are often nothing more than a farcical mashup of business jargon. How about, a purpose to "[d]evelop, deploy and manage a diverse set of scalable, performant and strategic knowledge management tools to best serve our constituents, partners and collaborative organizations, improving the possibility of overall satisfaction among our diverse customer profiles." Or "[t]o scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings"?  The latter example is in fact a parody created by Dilbert Creator Scott Adams, but it was sufficiently close to the frequently awful reality to fool executives at Logitech. There is so much nonsense masquerading as “purpose,” a company could just as easily use an automatic statement generator than pay the average marketing firm a princely fee to generate one.

Not all companies trod the path to purpose through jargon. Some take the high road, dreaming the big dreams and fostering an aspiration for inspiration. “Inspire the human spirit” or "inspire moments of optimism and happiness"  or even "inspiring us to live with a sense of purpose." There's also building dreams and enhancing lives and enabling "businesses to thrive and ... people [to] fulfill their hopes and dreams." Of course there's nothing wrong with any this. There's also nothing actionable about these statements because they are so diffuse, inarguable and useless that they fail to provide any meaningful insight into how they relate to the company's operations or employees. They are the corporate equivalent of the single tenant of the Universal Life Church: "to do that which is right" (a tent so broad that the church boasts over 20 million ordained ministers)!

Many companies have their intentions in the right place, they're just trying a bit too hard. If a company is struggling to convince the outside world of its purpose, then the purported purpose probably is not the legitimate purpose. If no one can ascertain the congruence between stated purpose and actual conditions, the purported purpose is unlikely to influence the organization in any substantive way.

Then there is the further epidemic of organizations who cannot seem to find a clear purpose of their own attempting to latch onto the purpose of various social causes. From Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty campaign to Bono’s Red campaign, social cause marketing has gripped companies throughout the world. The problem is that for every successful, properly aligned campaign, there are ten other corporate campaigns with little to no relation to the cause’s actual purpose. What do KFC and breast cancer have to do with one another? Hmmmm. Hard to say. Some have even argued that the consumption of fatty foods like fried chicken increases the risk of breast cancer. But that did not stop KFC from turning its purpose into both delicious fried chicken…and breast cancer awareness. Stephen Colbert has satirized this trend of strange bedfellows, calling out Campbell's Soup hooking up with the American Heart Association, Coca-Cola for its support of the National Kidney Foundation, Ford sponsoring juvenile diabetes and Marlboro for Keep America Beautiful. Although these are all quite worthy causes, seeking to glom on to the purpose of a charity with (1) no obvious relevance or (2) one that exists to ameliorate the potential consequences of using the company's products may indeed cause the company to be hoisted on its own petard by a talk show host.

As organizations scale and become more complex, of course it becomes more difficult for a common purpose to arise organically, let alone be captured in a statement on a website or a plaque on the wall. It takes a deliberate combination of different strategies, tools and techniques to manage, direct and extend purpose to inform both underlying strategy as well as day-to-day work. BrandCulture helps organizations build what we call Shared Purpose by clearly defining the company’s raison d'être and value that its products and services deliver.

Shared Purpose gives customers a reason to buy and employees a reason to believe. We then leverage and work across six distinct areas to help organizations align their brand and culture to create Shared Purpose with leadership, communications, symbolism, rewards and recognition, environment and structure strategies and initiatives. We call the combination of these six elements the Cultural Framework, and believe in combination they unite brand and organizational culture to drive employee engagement and business performance. If this sounds interesting, we invite you to explore the benefits of creating your own Shared Purpose.