One of the many things great brands have in common is a clear sense of purpose.
Purpose is one of those words that we all use, giving us the illusion that we mean the same thing when, in fact, we rarely do. So before we go much further it’s important to clarify what WE, at grio, mean when we use the word purpose.
In its simplest definition, purpose is the reason something is done or created, or for which it exists. In this sense, every business has a purpose. Many exist primarily to make money, some to fulfill personal aspirations and others to enhance other people’s lives.
At grio, we believe that the fundamental purpose of a business isn’t to make money or fulfill our personal aspirations, but to improve the human experience– for employees, customers, and humanity at large.
Purpose is fundamentally about responsibility. It’s about how a business understands and defines its responsibility to its stakeholders and to society. The more a business expands its circle of responsibility, the bigger its purpose.
THE DNA OF GREAT BRANDS
When we build a business that feels a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the people inside and outside of its walls, it naturally compels us to get to know those people at a deeper level and to care for them. It compels us to lead with empathy.
Of course, to be successful as a company you have to, at the very least, fulfill your end of the basic contract you signed with your employees, customers, and society– to pay them in exchange for their labor; to give them good products and services in exchange for their money; and to pay your taxes, respectively.
Every successful business knows that you don’t get what you want unless you can fulfill the basic terms of these agreements. But great brands take it a step further. They expand their circle of responsibility. They don’t just make sure employees are paid a fair wage; they invest in their well-being, happiness and fulfillment. They don’t stop at delivering great products and services; they fulfill customers' aspirational needs to be protected, cared for, inspired and supported in their quest to become the best versions of themselves. And they do not only pay their taxes, they also accept the responsibility to tackle challenges that plague society and to help move forward important political and social issues.
This expanded sense of responsibility requires a great deal of empathy, care and generosity. Without a strong purpose in its DNA, no company could possibly live up to such expectations.
FINDING YOUR BRAND PURPOSE
Your purpose shouldn’t be about profit or about making the best products; it should be fundamental to the human experience. It should focus on how you and your business will improve the human condition.
Consider two companies that sell sunglasses: Sunglasses Inc. and EyeCare. Sunglasses Inc.’ s purpose is to make the best sunglasses in the world, and everything they do is to that end. They hire the best designers and invest heavily on research and development to push the envelope on design and consistently bring to market the best sunglasses in the world. EyeCare’s purpose is to protect the human eye. They, too, hire the best designers and invest heavily in research to bring to market the best sunglasses in the world. But because their focus is on protecting the human eye, they also experiment with contact lenses and eye drops that may provide better UV protection.
When companies have a product-centric purpose, like making the best sunglasses in the world, they over-identify with their products. They forget that products are worthless in and of themselves because they only gain value in the context of the human experience. They are also a means to end. At grio, we call it the product-centric trap. At best, those companies feel trapped, which makes it difficult for them to expand or pivot if necessary– like during a global pandemic. At worst, it puts them one innovation away from potentially going out of business.
EyeCare doesn’t identify as a sunglasses company although they also make sunglasses. To protect the human eye, is fundamental to the human experience. It improves the human condition. It therefore transcends the product and the entire industry. That’s why they happily experiment with eye drops, contact lenses or laser procedures that could disrupt the entire sunglasses industry and their own company.
If EyeCare succeeds in creating eye drops or contact lenses, Sunglasses Inc. may be out of business. They could only survive if they have a human-centric purpose like to promote confidence and self expression. Because that’s fundamental to the human experience, contact lenses would not necessarily make them obsolete. One, those who buy from them to feel more confident will not stop buying sunglasses even if company B finds a better solution against UV light because that wasn’t their reason for buying sunglasses in the first place. Two, even if sunglasses became a relic of the past, they could pivot away from sunglasses and still deliver on their purpose–promoting confidence and self-expression in other ways.
Your purpose doesn’t have to be tackling the world toughest challenges, like solving world hunger or curing cancer, though that would be amazing. But it should be fundamental to the human experience. It should strive to improve the human condition– better, safer, happier, healthier or wiser– in small and big ways.