What McKinsey misses about corporate "purpose"

| February 8, 2022

The consultancy’s SCORE model for embedding so-called purpose in organizations is valuable but fails to integrate the most important communication channels, says Jason Sumner

Corporate purpose statements are often boring, frequently mockable and sometimes hypocritical. That’s why activist investor Terry Smith’s attack on the purpose of Unilever’s Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand made me wince with recognition even as I disagreed. “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of … mayonnaise has … lost the plot,” Mr Smith said, referring to Unilever’s CEO saying that the purpose of Hellmann’s is “fighting food waste”.

Mayonnaise may not need a purpose but the human beings who make the mayonnaise certainly do, and many of the customers who buy it want to know that the company cares about something more than just making profits.

And the fact is that, Mr Smith’s observations aside, more and more Fortune 500 companies are adopting purpose statements all the time. If executed and communicated well, a purpose statement can galvanise and motivate. On the flip side, when executed and communicated poorly, it can backfire. See the many purpose statements that amount to little more than a bland word salad of “missions”, “dreams” or “commitments”. The question for corporate digital communicators is how can we make them better – more meaningful inside and outside organizations?

You may have seen McKinsey’s SCORE model for embedding purpose in an organization – Simplify, Connect, Own, Reward, Exemplify). It’s a valuable and useful framework to help company boards link purpose to actions and outcomes. For all of its strengths, the model underplays the role of communications and misses out completely the role of corporate digital channels and corporate digital teams. McKinsey actually frames the problem well in the article – “It is relatively easy to get to a purpose statement that would appear at the top of your website. What is more challenging is making it live in the organization.” Then the website is never mentioned again. 

This is puzzling because involving corporate digital teams and the channels they manage would enhance every stage in the SCORE model.

Picture of McKinsey's SCORE framework
McKinsey's SCORE framework, from its recent podcast episode titled 'The role of ESG and purpose'

Take “Simplify”, which McKinsey defines as “Make sure that purpose is simple and convincing”. The corporate digital team, with its editorial skills and knowledge of different stakeholder groups, will know whether certain word combinations will resonate or not. How will this look to audiences when it goes live? Are there things anywhere in our communications that actively contradict it? Maersk could have used this kind of road testing before its own employees revolted over its new strategy. 

“Connect”, “Own” and “Reward”, according to McKinsey, are about ensuring that purpose connects to the strategy, that it is owned by the board and well incentivised at all levels. While it is up to management to execute these steps, corporate digital communications is integral to ensuring that the outcomes are articulated and explained to all stakeholders in the right way, from customers, investors and jobseekers to employees and the media. Communication should be tailored to each group, drawing on different evidence to make the message hit home. How well purpose is incentivised, for example, will be a key question for jobseekers – one that should be answered comprehensively on the website. 

The final step, “Exemplify” is to “tell great stories about purpose”. Stories should not just be an afterthought. Thinking about the kinds of stories you could tell while developing the purpose will help focus thinking, and again, the corporate digital team has crucial input here. 

“Telling great stories” also implies after dinner anecdotes, when it underplays the skill and dexterity required to do this effectively, especially when what comes out of the boardroom is often vague and noncommittal (or worse, see first sentence of this article). It often falls to corporate digital teams to take upon themselves to develop themes and topics that are related to the purpose but also key in making the purpose relatable in the real world. 

Jason Sumner is a Senior Consultant and Director of Editorial at Bowen Craggs

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