HomeThe HeroesBrand AmbassadorsLet’s get ‘purpose’ right

Let’s get ‘purpose’ right

That’s the real role of purpose for most big corporations: a giant, magical distraction that allows you to pull the fat, fiscal rabbit from the hat, while everyone is looking at your beautiful brand purpose standing next to you.”

Who knows whether Mark Ritson – a highly-respected Professor of Marketing and a fully-confessed cynic when it comes to brand purpose – included professional services firms in his criticism. But seeing some of the behaviours and decisions of firms, it would be easy to say that the idea of purpose really can’t work in the sector.

I that, says brand strategist Keith Wells, would be a shame: it would waste the opportunity and ignore the commercial imperative that most firms face. Done well, the idea of purpose can help position a firm. We just might have to change some of the language and a lot of the thinking to get purpose done well.

Let’s start with the word itself. It has lost much of its value by becoming over-used and by having so many demonstrably untrue declarations made in its name.

Some of the definitions of purpose lead people down rabbit holes. ‘The reason we exist’ might work well for start-ups, or for businesses young enough to remember why, but it’s much harder to graft on that kind of statement to businesses that are decades or centuries old.

Explore and talk about your people’s true motivations instead. And, crucially, think about who they apply them to.

Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’ instructs us to ‘Start with the why’ and then to look at the ‘How’ and finally the ‘What’. But it has no mention of the ‘Who’, which I think is an arrogant and massive oversight. ‘What do we do? And who do we do it for?’ are fundamental questions and critical elements of positioning – and remember that ‘marketing’ begins with the word ‘market’.

‘What do we do?’ can set up a really interesting challenge, the responses to which can be enlightening and hugely valuable in positioning a firm. Answer the question in one verb. If you do it properly, you will automatically bring forward a qualitative understanding of the people you do it for, and the way you do it. I have done this exercise with accountants and lawyers, and we have all been surprised by the insights that have been created.

This is also where firms need to resist another siren call of the purpose merchants: ‘laddering’. Yes, pushing the responses to that ‘What’s our verb?’ challenge is vital if you want to elevate yourselves above the generic and the expected. But if you are on a laddering exercise, don’t be afraid to get off two or three rungs from the top. That’s how to avoid one of the criticisms and proven weaknesses of ‘purpose-washing’, which is to make a claim that is far beyond the reality of the firm’s activities and not credible to your key stakeholders. I’ve worked with a law firm that was proud to say it strengthened people, and with an accountancy firm that defined itself as business-builders, both of which have exceeded their growth targets year after year.

Finally, let’s borrow from the purpose lexicon.

Many people use the phrase ‘North Star’ to describe the role they see for their purpose. In true consultant style, we’ve created an acronym that clients have used as a check on the validity of whatever version of purpose they want to commit to. STAR stands for Simple (is it easy to understand, is it single-minded?), True (is it based on capabilities or attitudes within the business, and is there evidence of it?), Actioned (is it embedded in all the business’s decisions and actions) and Recognised (is it the basis of reward/recognition systems, and the core of the firm’s L&D programmes?)

The ideas and ambitions behind purpose can, I believe, apply to professional services firms just as easily as to any other type of organisation. The rewards of positioning the firm in this way, internally and externally, can be enormous. We might just have to jump off this particular brandwagon to reap them.

Keith Wells has 30 years’ experience in brand strategy. A former strategy partner and group managing director of two international businesses, for the last 12 years he has been an independent consultant specialising in the B2B sector in general and the professional services market in particular. Visit www.brandwell.uk.com for further information.

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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