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(Re)Finding your purpose

Harlan Kennedy
Director of Strategy
VBP Orange

So you are new to your company. It’s week three.

You’ve filled out all the HR paperwork and been through all the onboarding, and sat through a couple of meetings about the Q3 sales projections. You’ve probably also been to a workshop. Companies do a lot of workshops these days.

In a quiet moment around day 18, as you sip your grande almond machiatto, a question pops into your mind:


“What do we do here?”

Don’t panic. This is natural. You want to feel a sense of purpose at your new job. “Why do we exist?” “What is the purpose of this organization?” At this point you have several options. I would suggest employing all three:

  1. Consult the brand guidelines. It’s probably written somewhere on the first few pages. It might be called a “Mission.”
  2. Ask someone who works at your company. “Hey Nancy, what do you think our purpose is?” Ask three people across different departments.
  3. Ask your customers.

The best brand purpose communicates a vision for the world that you strive everyday to make real

If you take all three of these steps, be prepared to have multiple answers to your question. It’s quite common, and may happen for any or all of these reasons:


Your purpose is dated

A brand purpose can be like last Wednesday’s quinoa salad: At the time it was made, it seemed fresh and delicious and sustaining all at once. But now it’s been hiding in its Tupperware for too long, and seems not quite right to anyone who bothers to give it the sniff test. This isn’t just about being old – companies change. Markets change. Everyone loves a brand that can stick to its guns, but at the same time, many great companies have dramatically evolved their core offerings over time. Wrigley used to make soap. Nintendo used to make playing cards. HP moved from creating test and measurement equipment to PCs and printing equipment. These are dramatic changes. It’s more likely your brand has undergone subtle shifts in its offering that create a disconnect between its stated purpose and its actual offering.


Your purpose is muddy

Most large organizations are not good at creating singular thoughts. They are good at compromise, and nuance, and making sure everyone leaves the meeting feeling slightly (but not totally) disappointed. That’s why your purpose may feel like it has one too many adjectives, or an “and” where one shouldn’t be. “HarlanCorp. makes the world more fun by creating low-cost office furniture.” “KennedySoft makes seamless, high-powered, low-cost, workplace efficiency software that makes employees happy.” You laugh. I’ve seen worse.


Your purpose is out of touch with your customers

Customers don’t own the purpose. The company does. That said, disregard your customer’s experience at your own risk. Many companies think they have an idea of what their customer experience is, but they don’t. My local grocer may think that I go there because he has the best produce, but in reality I go there because I enjoy how friendly they are and how pleasant they make grocery shopping. This misunderstanding might be fine, until my grocer is trying to decide where to allocate his precious resources. Does he hire a produce consultant who guides me through the various options of heirloom tomatoes or does he hire more generalists in the store to smile and say “hi?” Why his grocery store exists, what role it plays in the world, is his business. But he’d be wise to at least hear what I value about my experience there.


Searching for your purpose can sometimes feel like it’s the most important challenge facing your organization. It can feel like a Holy Grail, a magical phrase carved into stone. While your brand purpose is certainly important, I would caution that it is not an end in and of itself. Rather, a great brand purpose is just a tool you can use to stay clear, stay focused, and feel good about whether what you do matters to the people who matter most. The best brand purpose communicates a vision for the world that you strive everyday to make real.

So find one, or rewrite your existing one. Try not to form a committee. And above all, make it matter. That doesn’t mean that your brand purpose has to be about saving the world, but it should solve a user need for someone. And one last thing: “maximizing shareholder value” is indeed a purpose. It’s clear, it’s singular, it’s measurable, and it acts as a reliable filter for the actions of the company. But it’s probably not very motivating to your customers or employees.