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The purpose of purpose

Dominik Prinz
Head of Strategy

Voltaire (contrary to the common belief that it was Spider-Man) once coined the saying: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Why did he carefully select these now famous words? Because he was deeply disturbed by the abuse of authority and privilege by those in power, while a large part of France’s population lived in poverty.

About 200 years later, this statement still stands—especially in a time of economic uncertainty, political turmoil and social unrest.

But instead of the bourgeoisie, it is now businesses that need to reassess their critical role in society. A new and enlightened generation of consumers and employees demands them to take a stand on issues that are crucial to help society progress.

This growing generation is now increasingly rewarding truly purpose-driven brands: by choosing them over their (less purpose-oriented) peers, by paying a premium for their products and services, or simply by coming back as loyal customers, over and over again.

By now, most businesses are beginning to understand this financial upside of being purpose-driven. And herein lie both the opportunity and the dilemma.

Let’s start with the opportunity, since it is compellingly clear that the economic benefits to operating as a purpose-driven business are manifold:

So where is the dilemma if “Purpose” is deeply relevant to people and helps to differentiate a brand in the marketplace? Simply put, these two benefits are, for the most part, self-serving.

If the motivation for jumping on the “Purpose” bandwagon is solely motivated by the bottom line, the effort is doomed to fail. The key to becoming a truly credible and successful purpose-driven brand is authenticity.

Today, without a doubt, business and societal impact must go hand in hand. Consumers are too informed; too connected and too skeptical in this information age to fall for a brand that claims to be pursuing a profound “purpose” when what it’s really after is a stronger P&L.

We are at a critical junction where businesses need to make sure “Purpose” does not turn into just another buzzword. No one needs “Purpose-washing” to become the new “Green-washing.”


The million-dollar question: how do you stay authentic? Three crucial ingredients are needed:


1) Leadership

Embracing an organizational purpose starts at the top. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Virgin’s Richard Branson have spearheaded efforts to align their organization around ideas that stretch far beyond business impact. The moment the CEO acts as a public role model and walks the purpose talk, employees – and ultimately customers – will believe.


2) Transparency

Businesses need to be open about how the Purpose they have subscribed to connects to their business, while at the same time creating a positive impact on society. There is no shame in that; in fact, people ‘get it.’ A sound storytelling approach is essential, one that clearly and simply paints a picture to explain why shared value creation is beneficial to everyone involved.


3) Participation

Today’s consumers know that actions speak louder than words, and they want their own actions to make a difference. That’s why successful brands invite them in, providing them with opportunities to engage. Warby Parker and TOMS do it with the One for One model, where every purchase directly creates impact. AT&T uses interactive workshops at colleges to demonstrate the risks of texting while driving in the context of its “It can wait” campaign.


The stakes are high—and so is the responsibility that comes with it. This is the time for businesses to embrace the sphere of influence they have on millions on consumers. By changing their own behavior they can affect the behavior of many, and mutually create a world that tilts the scale back into balance. Voltaire (and Spider-Man) would like that, for sure.