Will you get caught in the brand purpose trap?

Hanni Randell-Bateman, Oct 08,2018

The business case for Purpose is ever strengthening. 

As we see EY and Harvard Business Review add their names to the canon of research attesting to the brilliance these few words can bring, my ears still ring with Simon Sinek’s short, sleek elevator pitch that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. 

One hell of a Ted Talk, an abundance of research and prominent poster boys later (think Larry Fink, Google and Patagonia), and it’s no wonder Purpose-driven brands are rising in popularity. 

Done right, a Purpose gives employees something meaningful to rally behind, a reason to dedicate themselves to a company that transcends mere profit which can make the difference between a disengaged and a hyper-engaged workforce.

It can also act as a powerful driver of choice for customers as well as employees – in ‘The Business Case for Purpose’ researchers found that 58% of companies with a clearly articulated and understood purpose experienced growth of +10% versus 42% of companies that did not prioritise purpose.

The advantages are clear; but what’s interesting is that as their popularity rises so does their misuse… 

If you want to reap the advantages of purpose, then you need to create (and embed) a Purpose that will act as a strategic driver to guide all business decisions and behaviours.  

So, why and where are people going wrong? 

Too many rush to jump on the bandwagon and fall into the trap of creating a Purpose statement that is well-meaning but lacks intent and practicality. 


Sinek teaches us in his talk that to find our why, we must revisit our core… We must question what motivates us… We must reflect on what we really care about in the world. 

Herein lies the trap. 

Lofty questions lead to lofty answers and – in turn – lofty answers lead to lofty Purpose statements. 

This, in itself, is not bad thing… purpose statements should be a bit lofty in the sense that they should encourage stretch and progression, giving organisations something to aim towards.

But simply answering what motivates you and what you care about isn’t enough. If your line of questioning ends here, your Purpose is in danger of becoming too lofty, too detached from the day-to-day. 

Take this example: if you’re a fast food company and your Purpose is about “Helping people lead happier, healthier lives” – as admirable as it might be – any actions made towards this will always be tarnished by the fact that you’re selling fast food. 

Yes, this Purpose might be what everyone believes in, but if your purpose is at loggerheads with what you actually do, you can’t expect the business to truly rally behind it. It all comes across as a bit cheap; like the company is putting a veneer over their actions to distract everyone. 

Let’s not forget the customer either. Millennials – estimated to have the most spending power of any generation – are purpose-savvy, belief buyers who don’t just expect organisations to stand for something but to practice what they preach. Purposes matter and there’s no room to hide: statements will be scrutinised, and the vacuous will be outed. 

If a brand is too far removed from their purpose statement to deliver against it or worse, has no intention of doing so, no-one will galvanise behind it and the benefits will not be reaped. 

Baileys learnt this lesson the hard way. In 2011 they ran with the Purpose “Make woman shine” adopting lines such as “Be a woman for life, not just for applause”. Full of female-empowerment gusto, the right sentiment was there but as Diageo CMO Syl Saller told Marketing Week “People didn’t want Baileys to help them shine. They wanted Baileys to be all about pleasure.”

The brand’s recent success has been attributed to its back-to-basics, insight-driven Purpose statement: ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’. Attested by new food related campaigns, their new purpose reiterates the valuable lesson that Purposes that align with a brand’s ‘reason to be’ are more compelling than cop-out. 


To create a purpose with transformative power, the purpose needs to be authentic, believable and measurable.

It needs to be born from organisational truths and a process that marries beliefs with capability and intention.

Lines of questioning need to go further than simply asking what motivates us and what we care about. You need to think about the change you want to see in the world and the change that you can bring about.  

It needs to strike the right balance between aspiration and reality; giving you something to aim towards that you can begin to deliver against. 

For a Purpose to resonate and reward, it needs to be a business’ North Star. A guiding principle whose touch imbues everything and can offer wisdom in times of prosperity and crisis. 


Southwest Airlines: We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.

Southwest Airlines stay true to their core (exemplary service and air travel) while nodding to a higher aspiration (connecting people to what’s important). By combining aspiration with a grounding sense of reality; they convey a believable promise to customers. Although it stands well in its own right, when you pair this with their Vision to “become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline” it gives employees a clear, instructive maxim to go above and beyond for customers.   

Debenhams: To make shopping confidence-boosting, sociable and fun 

Debenham’s have created a Purpose that is gettable and attractive to customers. Highly tangible for both in-store and HQ employees, this provides a clear and guiding principle for behaviours and actions to be shaped around. It’s a rallying cry for everyone in the business to always choose the option that will make women feel great. It has transformative power because it can shape how Debenhams approaches everything from fabric quality to model castings and the service experience. It’s a purpose Debenhams can deliver against every day.