Don’t make ‘purpose’ pointless

Misuse of the word ‘purpose’ risks undermining genuine efforts to explain companies’ roles and goals in the world, argues Scott Payton.

We posted a job advertisement a few weeks ago. It’s attracting lots of applicants. A striking number of them wrote in their cover letter that they want to work for a company with a clear ‘purpose’.
The word ‘purpose’ is everywhere at the moment – and that’s largely a good thing. In boardrooms, investment houses and newsrooms, the success of a company is no longer being judged on ‘shareholder value’ alone. It’s increasingly being measured by the firm’s contributions to society at large – and its impact on the environment.
As Larry Fink, chairman of investment giant BlackRock, wrote in his annual ‘letter to CEOs’ earlier this year:
‘Company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders…’
It’s for this reason that, like our job applicants, people in charge of big corporations’ websites and other online channels are recognising that explaining their company’s purpose in the world is no longer just a ‘soft’ communications issue; it’s having an increasingly hard impact on their firm’s ability to attract customers, investors and employees. 
That’s why we’ve chosen ‘explaining your purpose’ as the theme for our next annual conference – and why we launched the Explain Yourself Index at the end of 2018.
But there’s also a growing problem with the word ‘purpose’ – an all too common one in the world of corporate communications: some companies are overusing and misusing it, diluting its power and undermining its, well, purpose.
For example, Procter & Gamble’s home page recently included the headline
“Investing in Latin America to deliver recycling with purpose.” Bolting ‘with purpose’ at the end of such a sentence is meaningless. 
Larry Fink’s own company’s online presence also suffers from a pointless proliferation of ‘purpose’. Take this heading from BlackRock’s careers site: 
“Do purposeful work with a long-term impact when you join us in building our new Atlanta innovation hub, ideally situated on Peachtree Street in Midtown.” The word ‘purposeful’ in this sentence is anything but. 
Over time, such overuse of the word purpose will render it useless from a corporate communications perspective. 
The same thing happened with the word ‘story’ as few years ago. Companies fell over themselves to add a ‘Stories’ section to their website. ‘Corporate storytelling’ was all the rage. 
Some companies labelled things on their websites ‘stories’ that weren’t: they were bog-standard press releases. The word became like wallpaper. Today, if you want your story to stand out, the last thing you should call it is a ‘story’. 
Similarly, if you want to communicate your company’s roles and goals in the world in a distinctive way, it’s important to bring them to life using videos, interviews, magazine-style articles and other engaging material that truly stands out from the crowd. Have a look at Unilever’s Sustainable Living section for a good example of a company doing exactly this. Unilever’s interactive ‘Take Action’ feature – which helps visitors to find volunteering and campaigning opportunities that fit their interests and availability – is particularly innovative. 
Screenshot of Unilever's Take Action feature
It’s also important to back up all this qualitative material with lots of detailed data on social and environmental performance and targets. German chemicals giant BASF does this very effectively online: see the interactive non-financial performance charts in its integrated annual report as an example.   
Screenshot of BASFs interactive non-financial performance charts
However you choose to explain the steps your company it taking to be a force for good in the world, it’s wise to use the word ‘purpose’ sparingly – before it stops having any purpose at all.

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This article was updated 16 April 2020
First published 10 February, 2020
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