What now for Purpose as we emerge from Covid-19?

GOOD recently published its views on the extraordinary shift taking place in the landscape: Convergence.

Never has the co-dependence of the economy and society been so clear.

As we begin our slow emergence from lockdown, it would be quite extraordinary for any business leader to think that Purpose was not a key part of recovery.

But many businesses still regard Purpose as non-essential.

Let’s be very clear: Purpose is not an option. Purpose driven recovery is the only form of sustainable recovery for all commercial brands.

And never has there been a better opportunity for businesses to create value from helping to tackle the social and environmental challenges we all face.

So, why could there be reluctance to engage in Purpose?

There are 5 common questions worth answering at the outset:

1. Confusion about what Purpose is

The landscape is rife with definitions. At GOOD, we use a simple definition.

Purpose is:

“The positive impact a business has on society or the environment to create value for individual stakeholders, the business and the wider community.”

This is beyond employing people, paying your taxes and operating in a socially and environmentally acceptable way. That is a given.

2. Confusion that CSR is Purpose

It seems like a quick and low-cost win to redefine CSR activities as Purpose, but there are 3 key differences which mean that this won’t work.

·      A business’s Purpose is based on a vision of society not just a vision for the business.

·      Purpose creates value. CSR defends value.

·      Purpose is owned and driven by internal as well as external stakeholders, not just the business.

3. Purpose is too expensive, time consuming and disruptive to apply now — especially when budgets are tight

Correction: Investment in Purpose is not only critical to sustainable recovery, but employees and consumers now expect it.

It does not have to be difficult. True a business has to clearly define its role in improving society and the environment before it starts down the path to authentic Purpose, but the approach to fulfilling that role will be iterative and an integral part of a business’s recovery and growth strategy.

4. A business must start with the perfect answer

A strive for perfection is a hindrance to getting started at all.

There is a common belief that a business has to be faultless before it can leverage its Purpose to create value. The absolute opposite is true. Value is created from actively engaging internal and external stakeholders to help achieve a business’s Purpose. You can only enrol these people by being honest, transparent and sharing the ambition.

5. Purpose is achieved through accreditation

Certain accreditation systems are, indeed, an excellent way for businesses to align their processes, systems and behaviours with a predetermined set of standards and values e.g. B Corp. But I fear this is the new CSR. Many business leaders will feel having the accreditation is job done. It’s not. Accreditation can be part of Purpose, but it creates a fraction of the value that Purpose creates.

These pre-conceptions are not the only cause for confusion and hesitancy, those businesses doing Purpose badly are undermining the value Purpose can create.

Here are 3 demonstrations of how NOT to do Purpose:

1.      Tactical Purpose – developing tactical marcomms campaigns to promote a one-off good action e.g. Cadbury’s tackling social isolation. It’s good, but it doesn’t create sustainable value for the business nor a sustainable solution to the social problem its highlighting. ‘Donate your words’ has now been been relegated to the gift section of Cadbury’s website!

2.      Short-cut Purpose – claiming virtues that are expected of any business. This tends to be re-positioned or over-inflated CSR. Many of the high street banks and building societies have attempted this and achieved very little.

3.      Rubbish Purpose – and the worst offender of all three. Applying the term Purpose to actions which simply don’t have any measurable impact on society or the environment. Its rare nowadays, but still some businesses try and claim a virtue where there simply is none. This from Nespresso is breathtakingly bad.

None of these approaches will create sustainable recovery for a business. In fact, any one of them could harm recovery as key stakeholders, employees, customers and investors, seek to distance themselves from businesses and brands that don’t reflect their values.

Purpose does not have to be costly, time consuming and disruptive. Done well, it should be inspiring, intuitive, galvanising.

We all need businesses to recover. But we want, and need, them to recover in a way that does not jeopardise the society they serve in; the environment they depend on.

This is not the time for procrastination. It is time to act.

It’s time for business leaders to make a commitment to Purpose and create sustainable recovery for us all.