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┬ácomes 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.


‘Go play football’

In football, it’s well known that a manager’s philosophy has a big impact on the success of a team.

Asking a team of individuals to pull on the same coloured jersey and just ‘go play football’ without any direction – an idea of how, why or what’s expected of them – rarely works.

This past season, Liverpool and Manchester City were the embodiment of teams that all gathered round a single footballing ideology and went on to dominate, while gaining mass recognition for the way they played.

From performance on the pitch, to transfer strategy, the training ground and commercial teams, the best football clubs create a culture around a single unifying idea. Everyone inside knows what it is, everyone knows how they fit in and what they have to do. It just works.

Why is business any different? What’s your single unifying idea?

Pursue meaning, not ‘more’.

Back in 2015, the story broke. For the last six years, the engineers at Volkswagen had manipulated the system, deliberately fudging the numbers on their diesel engines during emissions testing to comply with US standards. In reality, they were emitting up to 40x more air pollution when on the roads. The scandal ended up costing VW billions of dollar in fines, an immediate 10% drop in share prices, a knock on global sales, and almost irreparable damage to its reputation and credibility.


Over the last week or so I’ve been reading ‘Story Driven‘ by Bernadette Jiwa. She explains her ideas on what drove the engineers at VW to deception:

“The company’s goal was to beat the competition and be number one. […] Innovation, increased sales, increased pre-tax return on sales, and being a ‘top employer’ were listed as the means by which they would achieve this goal.”

According to Jiwa, VW was a prime example of a ‘competition-driven company’ – since 2011 their entire focus was on being a ‘market leader’ and everything they did was geared towards this. As a consequence, the company culture forced honest, smart, and dedicated people to hit their metrics. Meet your targets and you’ll be alright.

The problem with playing to win

When you’re sole aim is to win – to make money, or increase turnover – you’re shaping the culture of your organisation. If you’re not careful, you can create an environment where people start to believe the wrong thing is the right thing to do. The effects may not be immediately apparent, but over time these ‘wrong things’ stack up and the cracks in your identity and reputation begin to appear. And when you’re exposed, like VW, it will all be too late.

Don’t try to matter by winning. Win by mattering.

Meaning Economy

In the 50’s and 60’s, people created value by working with their hands – an Industrial Economy. We then moved into an era where our ‘heads’ or ideas produced value – an Information Economy. Then came the computer and all of a sudden we were designing, coding and connecting through technology. But today, we’re in the age of the Meaning Economy, where the brands that thrive allow their people to work with their hearts as well as their heads and hands.

The Meaning Economy has also produced a new kind of consumer – one who is drawn to the brand who shares their values and vision for the world. We are more likely to part with our money if we feel an emotional connection with the company we’re giving it to.

Pursue meaning, not ‘more’

More often than not business owners eyes light up at the numbers. The balance sheet rules all. Sales figures are King. And thou shalt all be judged by P&Ls.

That world has changed.

If you can take the time to sit down and figure out your company’s authentic vision for the future. A change you want to make in the world, underpinned by a clear set of values you’re willing to champion, that has the power to engage and motivate staff internally and connect emotionally with your customers, you will win. Your ‘why’ and reason for existing *is* your competitive advantage, not the unnecessary meddling of ‘marketing types’.

Don’t make a VW-sized mistake. Pursue meaning, not ‘more’.


You can a previous post I’ve done on ‘more more more’ culture here.