How to move company purpose beyond empty platitudes

You have to get a little bit obsessed.
You have to get a little bit obsessed.
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you haven’t heard, companies care about purpose these days. They’re creating new roles like “chief purpose officer” (a whopping 650,000-plus results if you search LinkedIn for people with that title). Consultancies like mine, SYLVAIN, are taking on more and more projects helping brands craft their purpose. There is a seemingly no end to the supply of articles, conferences, books, and podcasts about corporate purpose, which is touted as the central pillar of success in 21st-century business. And 70% of Gen-Z and millennials believe a brand should have a purpose they personally believe in.

Welcome to the “Purpose Industrial Complex,” a web of strategic relationships between companies, consultancies, nonprofits, and governments that build appealing and profitable commercial brands through culturally relevant media narratives.

The world of business is drunk on “purpose.” Leaders have carefully written out their respective purposes (purposi?) and ensured everyone knows about them, from veterans like Ben & Jerry’s to the newest emerging startups. But has anything really changed? Could it be that drafting, adopting, and marketing a corporate purpose is mainly a self-indulgent exercise? Has purpose become a gratuitous accessory?

Beyond trustwashing

In truth, most of these players are leaning into purpose because they believe it resonates with consumers, employees and investors, not necessarily because they believe in it inherently within themselves. Companies are likely responding to trends and moments in culture to keep their brands top of mind, even though consumers have begun to see right through it. Worse than that, in our frenzy for purpose, we’re driving consumers to be more skeptical of brands and their motivations; 53% think brands “trustwash,” or aren’t as committed to helping society as they claim.

And yet, purpose still matters. Where we’ve gone wrong is that many brands have turned it into a rhetorical exercise, without committing to any real, long-term action. A recent McKinsey study shows that while 82% of employees felt it was important for their companies to have a purpose, only 42% felt their company’s purpose statement had any impact.

In our collective obsession with purpose, we’ve lost sight of what takes it beyond words—beyond promises and memes.

How to properly obsess over purpose

 Instead of being obsessed with the idea of purpose, we should be obsessed with our own respective purpose. When channeled appropriately, that obsession is what will allow us to extinguish the outside distractions that can make “purpose” feel fluffy. It will guide every decision we make, in service of the greater potential.

The story of Patagonia comes to mind—it’s so often considered the poster child for all things purpose. But that’s a trap. What makes Patagonia unique is not that it’s purpose-driven, it’s that it is unendingly driven; it’s obsessed with its own purpose, which is focused squarely on protecting and preserving the natural world. The outdoor-clothing brand has made a number of bold moves over the past several years that put its obsession front and center, from Black Friday campaigns telling people NOT to buy their clothes, to becoming overtly political and suing the Trump administration for its actions regarding public lands, not to mention its self-imposed 1% Earth Tax.

Patagonia is an obvious case study in purpose, but don’t be fooled: it’s a less obvious example of corporate OCD, which is what allows it to express its purpose so powerfully and authentically.

When purpose and obsession are disjointed, a company’s vision becomes as solid as a house of cards. But when purpose and obsession are aligned, companies can shift from passive observers to active agents of change. The world desperately needs more of these agents, driven by a healthy obsession that moves us beyond today’s inadequate definition of corporate purpose and closer to something like progress.