No, Purpose Isn’t a Symptom — But it is Misunderstood

In response to those who smell an empty trend, let’s untangle purpose and corporate social responsibility.

I read an article the other day that made a bold claim. It said that marketers are embarrassed.

Why? Well, according to the author, it’s because marketers don’t want you to know that they influence you, or that their role is to help a company make a profit.

The author then attributed the recent focus on purpose as a symptom of this systemic embarrassment, arguing that purpose is the most dangerous word of 2018.

First, let me say that I find the claim of embarrassment offbase. Marketers and company leaders are not afraid or embarrassed when their efforts result in business growth. In fact, the best have figured out how to balance genuinely useful, authentic work for their audience with the need to tangibly support their sales team and bottom line.

More importantly, purpose is not a dangerous concept. But it is regularly misunderstood.

The author of this article defined purpose as “brands aligning with and promoting social causes. Almost always seemingly out of nowhere.”

Herein lies a fundamental issue with his argument. He has conflated purpose with corporate social responsibility (CSR).

While both concepts deal with making positive impact on the world, they are absolutely not the same thing.

Purpose is your fundamental reason for being. It should center on the why: why you exist, why you do what you do, and why what you do matters to society and the world. Purpose makes an unknowable corporation empathetic and human.

Being purpose-driven isn’t a specific action; it’s a way of thinking, a way of doing business, and a way of leading where purpose impacts every aspect of the company.

Corporate social responsibility, while it has many definitions, has largely come to represent a company’s charitable or social impact initiatives. These may include volunteering, donating, or other methods of showing support for a specific cause.

The author says this support comes “seemingly out of nowhere,” and as the article continues, it becomes clear that the randomness is his biggest frustration.

The funny thing is, I find it frustrating too, but not for the same reasons. I agree that marketing departments have not quite grasped the concept, but I find it frustrating because these companies are missing the bigger picture — and the bigger impact for everyone.

Yes, supporting charities is a good thing to do. But not if it doesn’t make sense with the rest of your actions. Then the support looks random, or worse, downright disingenuous. Like jumping on the cause trend, we know that you’re supporting this cause today because you think it’ll make you look good…and that’s about it.

For example, the author cites Airbnb supporting marriage equality as random. I would agree that the company and the cause are misaligned.

In contrast, Patagonia has done a good deal of work standing up to preserve open, natural spaces. That does make sense with the rest of their corporate actions, right down to the products they make.

Another example comes from KPMG. Instead of looking outward for an organization to support, the company encouraged employees to share their own accounts of how they were making a difference. This effort became the 10,000 Stories Challenge. The employees ended up making 42,000 posters instead of the proposed 10,000, and the firm benefited as a company. They climbed 31 places to the number 12 spot on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, recruiting improved, and as turnover decreased, costs dropped.

Why? Because KPMG identified a fantastic way for their employees to personally identify with its collective purpose.

To avoid misalignment, companies need to start by developing a purpose.

What the company does in it of itself should make meaningful impact on the world. Their work should matter, in addition to generating jobs and growing the economy, which is valuable as well.

Once a purpose has been determined, the organization at large can then select a cause to support that furthers that same purpose. Focusing everyone’s efforts toward the same goal will make those efforts feel authentic instead of hollow.

What the author picked up on — rightly — is that no amount of money or flashy billboards for the save the spotted owl society will make up for a corporation whose value isn’t resonating on it’s own.

He ends his article saying “If you’re doing brand communications, your job to create and refresh memory cues, then reinforce a long term positioning strategy.”

I am going to make the argument that a purpose-driven company who selects their CSR initiatives thoughtfully will be the most successful at making impact and filling this job description.

Your CSR initiatives are another opportunity for you to demonstrate your why. They’re an opportunity to reinforce your long term positioning strategy, while meeting the expectations of your audience and supporting a (hopefully) worthy cause. Talk about a few birds with one stone.

Additionally, if you’ve well aligned your cause, your ability to truly help the organization you’ve chosen to support gets amplified. Not only are your actions more on point for your brand and company, but they will also be more in step for the organization. Remember, donating money isn’t the only way to show you care — there are many creative ways to engage that will enrich your company and provide needed benefits to the cause.

As you move forward wrestling with all of the industry jargon trying to decipher how you should be demonstrating what matters to you, consider starting with purpose and working out from there.

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This article was originally published at

Builder. Founder. Communicator. I write on purpose-driven business, as well as brand, story + leadership. Founder @ MatterLogic, MatterPulse, and Matter 7.

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