In Defence of Purpose

Corporate purpose (the pursuit by businesses to exist for a purpose beyond purely financial gain) and the debate that surrounds it is a very interesting topic and has been a focus of ours at Message House (see our report The Case for Purpose). It has its detractors and has been on the end of some negative press recently. Maria Hengeveld attacked the ‘the scam of the purpose paradigm’ and Anand Giridharadas and Rutger Bregman have received huge publicity for taking billionaires to task over their ‘philanthropy’ and ‘social conscience’.

Giridharadas and Bregman argue against what they see as billionaires making the claim that private finance can solve all the worlds problems as a bid to divert attention from their harmful activities. They see this message as an attempt to hold on to the status quo rather than drive change. The argument is that business can have only a positive impact by ending exploitative employment and paying taxes – without this, the rest is fundamentally dishonest. As they see it, real change needs to be driven by government policy.

So is it time to ditch purpose? Absolutely not - purpose has a lot to offer but it needs to be executed and communicated authentically. Whilst the broad argument outlined above is sound, the dismissal of purpose as a source of change (not, as they choose to see it, the sole source of change) and the implicit hostility towards businesses that are trying to do good seems unnecessary. It’s true that often the language used to talk about purpose does not help and may in fact be undermining the concept it is being used to support.

The terminology has become confused. Philanthropy and corporate purpose are two different things but are often presented as one and the same. Inevitably, this means any business trying to speak about its purpose will run the risk of receiving the type of criticism that we saw at Davos.

Corporate purpose is not about trying to save the world or random acts of kindness. Rather, it is about doing the right thing, sticking to a core belief as to what your business exists to serve and minimising harm.

At an event I attended last year, during a discussion on corporate purpose, a panellist said that the biggest threat to purpose is that it ends up being seen as “CSR on steroids”. This watchout is one that all communicators and brands can heed. Purpose needs to be rooted in reality and disentangled from the do-goodery, ‘Bonofication’ (a Bono namecheck is obligatory when talking about this subject) and band-wagoning we regularly see from large corporates. Of course, philanthropy is welcomed, but when it doesn’t credibly stem from your purpose or is perceived as random, it leaves people wondering what the point of it is.

Too often, businesses will overstate the role they play in society or will only ever talk about their successes. This simply doesn’t wash with many people. We conducted research into the language of reputation and found that 60% of the public think that ‘Corporate Responsibility is mainly about business trying to look good’ compared to 40% who think it is about trying ‘to do good’. Perhaps, to win over the cynics, it’s time for the purpose driven businesses to set more relatable goals and to talk about the limitations, the mistakes and challenges they have experienced on their journey. That way, we can all be more confident that purpose is not just a superficial marketing exercise.

Ultimately, purpose should be about doing rather than saying. If businesses can do the basics really well – to do the right thing, focus on the core belief as to what your business exists to serve and to minimise harm – purpose will speak for itself.