A Rush to Purpose

I first became aware of corporate America’s willingness to cut corners in order to create a higher purpose at an industry event. 

The guest speaker was former United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz who, when asked how he planned to avoid the beleaguered airline’s spate of constant high-profile missteps, said he had it all figured out.

“This past weekend I created our corporate purpose. It will assure we won’t repeat past mistakes,” he said.

One could hear the moans and groans from the CCOs, academics and agency leaders in the audience, all of whom knew one does NOT create a higher purpose over a 48-hour time frame.

I share this anecdote because I believe it’s a key reason why a new survey shows only 27 percent of consumers can name a purpose-driven brand!

The shockingly low awareness level is, in my opinion, a direct result of the veritable stampede by organizations everywhere to tick off the box that reads, “Create corporate purpose.”

As a result, many such statements look the same, sound the same and include the same watered down, warm, fuzzy and, frankly, altogether forgettable phrases.

Mix in countless examples of purpose-washing in which a company boldly proclaims a purpose that fails to reflect how it operates in reality and is outed by a key stakeholder for doing so, and you have the answer as to why 78 percent of consumers don’t know your organization is purpose driven.

When it comes to purpose-washing in particular, we’ve helped many a client walk back a purpose until it’s been stress tested.

Case in point: One company was determined to lead with diversity and inclusiveness for their higher purpose.  After all, the company was about to introduce their services to several urban markets. But a quick look at the leadership team and board of directors on the corporate website revealed not one person of color in the entire group.

There was no doubt in our minds the client would sustain a serious backlash for not delivering on their higher purpose. As a result, we advised them to delay their launch until the C-suite and board better reflected the communities they intended to serve. FYI, Peppercomm’s Jackie Kolek provided tips for how companies can avoid making unintended missteps in a recent LinkedIn post.

Segueing back to creating a higher purpose, I interviewed 15 CCO’s for a co-branded research report with the Institute for Public Relations (www.instituteforpr.org). As a result, I know the very best examples of crafting a meaningful corporate purpose take months, if not years, to come to fruition.

In each case, the CCO’s with whom I spoke included the views of internal and external stakeholders before answering the fundamental question every corporate purpose should address: Why does the organization exist?

My personal favorite was Lowe’s which, after a lengthy process, declared their higher purpose to be, “Helping people love the homes in which they live.” Lowe’s delivers on that promise every day in multiple ways. And it’s the reason why employees are proud to work at Lowe’s. It’s a purposeful purpose. And I’d be willing to bet a year’s supply of lumber that most Lowe’s customers know the retailer is purpose driven.

So if you’re about to create a higher purpose, do yourself a favor: Slow down, include input from all relevant constituents and be sure you can live up to that purpose every day in every way.

If you already have a corporate purpose but haven’t yet stress tested it to ensure it rings true across all audiences, do so ASAP.

A rush to purpose can be a one-way ticket to anonymity, antipathy and, very possibly, anger.


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