Creating a culture of meaningful work

If there’s one thing the world’s not, it’s ‘simple’. Yet we’re so often guilty of trying to make it that way. We’re always on the lookout for that ‘thing’ that seems to explain away all complexity and confusion. If only we could just do ‘this’ or understand ‘that’ better, everything would be an absolute breeze.

Right now, in the world of branding and marketing that ‘thing’ is purpose: sometimes referred to as the ‘why?’ of a company. This year’s Cannes Lions festival seemed to turbo-charge the belief that if you could just come up with a good enough purpose for your brand then everything would be ok. You’d succeed. Sales would rise. People would love you.

I’m being deliberately facetious. But when it’s written out like that, it seems far too simplistic to be true. And, of course, it is. I’ve written in the past about the value in genuine purpose, but what I hope I made clear is that it’s not the answer to all of your problems.

You can’t polish a turd

The most important thing about your brand is the product or service you’re trying to sell. No amount of fluff, heart-warming stories, or Corporate Social Responsibility work is going to make up ground for you if your product isn’t good enough, or if it’s the answer to a problem that doesn’t need solving.

Does it matter whether Amazon runs ads stating how conscious they are of the world’s ills, and how determined they are to right them? No. Their service is so exceptional that you’re likely to buy from them regardless. Have they still got a guiding vision or founding purpose that’s driving their work internally and helped get them to where they are? Almost certainly yes.

Purpose informs culture not marketing

This is where I feel the big confusion is surrounding the notion of purpose. When cynics hear talk about ‘having a vision of the future you’re trying to build’, or ‘establishing a purpose that resonates with others’, they can’t help but think of what that looks like in terms of marketing – holier than thou, ‘buy from us ‘cos we save puppies’, ‘we’re more moral than the others’, types of campaign.

But I feel this misses the point.

The reason why purpose and vision are so important is to act as an internal ‘North Star’: the guiding light for you and your people, making sure you’re headed in the right direction.

No need to brag

If your purpose is to make the best chocolate in the world, your outward message to the world should not be ‘buy from us because we’re trying to make the best chocolate in the world’. Great. Thanks. Rather, if you’re serious, your chocolate should speak for itself and prove it’s the best, while your marketing focuses on attracting those who might value chocolate of such high quality.

However, that purpose *should* be informing the culture of your organisation – your production method, the attitude with which each employee goes about their work every day, your commitment to the details, your efforts to help others understand what great chocolate should taste like and the work that goes into producing it. Your whole business can be confident then that everything it does and every decision it takes comes from the same place – your single unifying idea.

What you don’t need to do is tell everyone that’s what you’re doing. Prove it.

The idea of having a purpose isn’t that you can then go on to brag about it. It isn’t a marketing gimmick or the answer to all your questions. It’s a philosophy that you sign up to from day one. A commitment to doing meaningful work for those who care.


Clearing up ‘brand purpose’

If you’ve never heard of the Cannes Lions festival, I don’t blame you. But, it’s this one week a year in the south of France where the great and the good of advertising and marketing industries get together to pat each other on the back, schmooze, and mull over the big talking points of the business.

This year, almost everyone has been talking about two phrases: ‘brand purpose‘ and ‘woke-washing‘: the manufacturing of a brand ‘purpose’ where it doesn’t really exist, in order to tap into morally-fashionable trends. The whole subject has sparked debate on both sides of the argument.

There are those who seem to believe strongly that creating a brand around a ‘purpose’ is the only thing that matters right now. Consumers care more than ever about what their brands stand for and are willing to go further than ever to avoid giving their cash to a brand they socially or politically disagree with. They have a point.

Then there are those who dismiss it all. It’s a vanity act and a futile pursuit of moral one-upmanship. Not only is it often meaningless (see woke-washing), but it’s not very differentiating if everyone’s doing it, is it? They too have a point.

Here’s my take:

Your bullshit won’t cut it!

If you’ve read anything of mine over the last few weeks you know I’m a believer in standing for something more meaningful than margins and turnover. But, let’s get one thing clear – you’ve got to mean it. Like really believe in it.

Everything you do has to be authentic, not just because consumers are more ‘woke’ than ever and can smell BS a mile away, but because how else are you going to make it work if you don’t truly believe what you’re saying?

If you’re struggling to think of a *thruthful* but meaningful reason that you exist, start by asking yourself “what do we do?” – that be should be easy. Then, ask yourself ‘why?’ as many times as necessary until you feel it in your belly. Verne Harnish recommends going until you reach “to save the world” and then backing up a step or two.

Purpose ≠ Politics

This is really the thing I want to say.

Don’t be drawn into thinking that by having a ‘purpose’ you have to be all holier than thou, or overtly political in your stance on things. For a lot of small businesses, it simply isn’t feasible to risk antagonising your customer base by being overly-vocal on issues that aren’t relevant to your products or services. It’s also not always financially realistic to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ on major cultural issues. But your purpose doesn’t *need* to be that.

Just be authentic

Your purpose can be as simple as being the leading example of exceptional customer service, or to pioneer a new way of working in your industry. It’s could be that you love something so much that your sole aim is to get others enthused about it too. As long as it’s authentic and you truly believe in it, then you’re on to a winner.

No matter what it is, you can find your ‘minimum viable audience’ – those who buy into that same vision – and go on to succeed.

Yes, social injustice, or tackling climate change and inequality are all honourable causes, but let’s not get blinkered about what ‘brand purpose’ actually means.