What’s the point of purpose?

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Over recent years the thinking in communications is that businesses must have a corporate purpose. But we must be carefully how that purpose is found and what it’s used for.

Businesses of scale have always looked for ways of defining themselves, for instance through the Vision, Mission and Values model – to my mind, still the clearest approach. But as expectations of corporates evolved so did the ways they defined themselves. It wasn’t enough to be so inward looking and a company’s definition needed to be about their external contribution – something that defined them in sustainability terms. Now the two have merged and there’s an expectation for businesses to have the loftiest definition yet, purpose.

There’s obvious value in having purpose. Products which serve their purpose can be hugely satisfying, people who have a sense of purpose in their days are generally happier. The same principle can logically apply to businesses.

But purpose has wrongly been adopted by comms and sustainability industries as a new way of packaging how a company presents itself. When this mistake is made, there’s a real danger that purpose will become a byword for superficial social responsibility, or palatable corporate messaging that only ever gets used in external comms and doesn’t guide the way the company actually operates.

When purpose is authentic, clearly articulated and properly understood throughout an organization, it can become the guiding principle on which all decisions are based. It can be the thread that runs through culture, communications and operations. But a purpose can’t be retrospectively stamped on a business by a comms or sustainability team.

There is though a genuine and valuable role for comms in reminding a leadership team of its corporate purpose, helping to articulate it or finding ways to apply it. That’s really our purpose.