Purpose or Impact

Purpose that is not intrinsic to the business is fragile

More and more these days, Brands are expected to stand for something greater than what’s delivered by the product or service. This has manifested over the past handful of years—in a push-me-pull-you sorta way—as an expectation that brands must have a “purpose.” It is an expectation with mixed intentions and mixed results.

The term of art for this is Purpose Brands. I don’t particularly like the word, purpose. I think having a product or service you believe in—and by implication that you believe will improve the lives of those who use it—is in itself a noble purpose.

Purpose that is not intrinsic to the business is fragile. If it is not woven into the fabric of the business or product—if it’s an add-on—it can be vulnerable to the very market forces that demand it. When adversity strikes or prices rise (as they inevitably will) beyond the acceptable premium customers might pay for a purpose brand, what then? Purpose is also vulnerable when a change occurs within the business, such as a change in leadership, or ownership.

And of course, there’s been more than a few instances of “purpose-washing” (like green-washing), where the company over-represents (or is intentionally misleading about) the purpose aspect of their products or brand. This weakens the perception of purpose brands across the board.

That’s why I prefer focusing on impact—or, having an impact (and yes, I know this term also holds a particular meaning—but bear with me).

Having an impact means that your purpose produces a tangible signal for the change you want to be in the world—it is directly relatable to a concrete measurable outcome.

How do you show that you are having an impact in the world?

Does your purpose lead to a regularly published update about your continued impact in the area you’ve chosen? For instance, if you’re in the food industry, a website stat on the number of free meals donated, for a bike shop or trail shoe company, sharing a long thread of content telling the story of involvement in trail reclamation, or testimonials for a clothing or sleep products brand about the number of blankets delivered to those in need?

Go ahead and have a purpose, regardless of whether the “marketplace” is demanding it—or not, having a purpose is admirable—but have it be about more than a phrase in your mission or your good intentions. Tie that purpose to an impact that you’ll actually have in the world.

John Walden – 04.22