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The Purpose Paradox

“The material world has nothing left to give you, the material world will only take from you.”

Those on a search for wholeness will no doubt be familiar with this brutally realistic assessment of the world today. Indeed, giving up your material attachments and dedicating yourself to a life of service was once only a path to be followed by a nun, a monk or a similar spiritual leader.

But unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, you will have noticed that it has become the mantra of many a progressive, modern business too. Under the banner of being purpose-led, businesses (and their investors, management consultants and customers) are shunning profits for purpose, quicker than you can say triple bottom line.

Somewhat inconveniently however, those businesses remain at the epicentre of all that is material in this world. And thus, for many, the purpose paradox plays out.

If your customers and investors are on a path to wholeness (or want to be seen to be on such a path while they tough out this strange but temporary diversion from Milton-Friedman-esque capitalism), how on earth do you respond? You’ve operated for decades on a 90-day cycle of EBITDA and forecast revenue ranges but now your advisors are chucking ESG and B Corp Certification down your throat and suggesting you give up this short-termism which has served you and your five CEOs in seven years so darn well!

I’m sure you detected a hint of sarcasm there. Personally, I hope this path to purposefulness is not a passing fad or a mere inconvenience to those seeking nothing but increasing returns. I hope it becomes a watershed moment when responsibility and accountability trump profits and yield. But even if you are doing the right thing for the right reasons, it’s still a minefield when it comes to actually communicating about it. There’s every chance you’ll become a target for criticism because of a lack of authenticity – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In our ongoing quest to help our clients see around corners, we’re making the following recommendations in order to navigate the potential purpose pitfalls:

  • True purpose is baked in from the outset – just because you bought a charging infrastructure business, doesn’t offset the damage you caused by exploiting the world’s fossil fuel resources for the last century. So don’t act like it does. It is crude and offensive. Must you unpick decades of bad choices to make amends? Well it will be hard to convince audiences otherwise but it is also not practical. Better to focus on genuine efforts, built from the ground up. True innovation which is driving more than just profits to the communities which you serve….and admitting the bad parts, not papering over them like they never existed.
  • Retro-fitting purpose using comms and marketing is doomed to failure. Prove me wrong by sending some examples my way by all means, but at best it lacks authenticity and at worst it’s Pepsi. These moves are typically made after a sudden guilty realisation or a misguided idea to solve the world’s problems (while conveniently gaining market share). Check yourself: does what you’re proposing really tightly align to the core values, products, services or brand promise of your organisation? Would it really pass the BS test with your biggest critic let alone your customers? Any hesitation here and it is probably a stretch. You should think about an alternative approach as soon as possible, or face the backlash in lost sales, customer confidence and share price. A good litmus test (as recommended to me by B Corp themselves) is a business’s About Us page. If your path to wholeness isn’t obvious (and authentic!) here then it won’t be long until you’re called out.

  • Don’t rely on your purposefulness selling itself, but don’t over egg it either. There’s a fine line between heroes and villains (some might say that line is invisible on social) but that doesn’t mean you should forgo communicating your worthy work. A better way to approach this is firstly to specifically target segments of your audiences, rather than taking a blanket approach. Like any comms, don’t assume everyone wants to hear everything – one segment’s passion is another’s apathy so do your research and get it right. Secondly, but most importantly, talk about what you’re actually doing, ie. the actions you’re taking and not the endless clever plans you have. Thanks to politics and large corporations reneging on promises, no one believes anything about future commitments any more. It’s action or nothing.

The path to wholeness for businesses is certainly a rocky one. Even when you have a credible story, you can still come out looking like the bad guys. While demonstrating a selflessness in modern society may feel impossible, it is this aspiration which must be your guiding principle.

If you’re struggling to see how your PR remains purposeful beyond the next 90-day cycle, drop us a line to discuss how we’ve help brands like Qualcomm, McAfee, Facebook and Adobe do just that.