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Purpose in business: From function to passion

Written by Nick Dormon on Friday, 14 May 2021. Posted in Insight, Analysis

Many businesses are born from the idea of offering a solution to a problem or need. But what of the function of ‘purpose’? The two are often confused, much to the detriment of businesses scaling-up their proposition.

Purpose in business: From function to passion

Many businesses are born from the idea of offering a solution to a problem or need. But what of the function of ‘purpose’? The two are often confused, much to the detriment of businesses scaling-up their proposition. 

In the beginning, a business may define its purpose as one that is practical or perfunctory. But, for successful expansion, this tactical kind of purpose must evolve to a higher, more philosophical kind of strategy if it’s to respond effectively to changing market conditions.  

Many businesses might see ‘purpose’ as how they can do good in the world, but purpose could be a whole spectrum of things. Simply put, it’s a reason for being. For large corporates, it adds a tangible human aspect to an often soulless identity. For the mid-sized companies, it helps differentiation in a competitive and crowded marketplace. For start-ups, it gives focus and clarity to business growth.  

Purpose must move from a function to a passion in order to be distinctive. This is particularly relevant to businesses that are selling products within the consumer wellness space. Let’s take CBD – a burgeoning market that is set to be worth £1bn in the UK alone by 2025 (Canex, 2020). CBD products have become increasingly popular over recent years, with the wellness benefits heavily reported. Imagine a startup in this space that has the hook of being first to market in offering a solution to balance their consumers’ mood. That might sound innovative and impressive, but a purpose built on being a market first won’t endure as more competition comes along. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate with this simple functional benefit. 

Furthermore, as the business expands and new ranges get added to the portfolio, it becomes difficult to align products under a single, unifying vision. What brings them together in the consumers eye especially if they offer different benefits for different needs and occasions? 

I recently spoke to an interesting new business that had combined traditional natural wool fibres with high-tech manufacturing processes, in turn producing a new kind of eco material. Their initial idea for a purpose was around sustainability; something the garment industry is crying out for, particularly in the age of disposable fashion and unethical production practices. 

This could work for initial launch, but what about in 5 years’ time when the market is flooded with sustainable solutions? There is a danger that the business could disappear in the crowd. 

This is why purpose needs to move beyond one product benefit. It must be baked in, right from the onset, in order to provide a cohesive philosophy for its reason to be. A higher purpose is, in many ways, a strategy for future-proofing a business to adapt and survive economic turbulence and market competition. So, for this sustainable material manufacturer, purpose could be recast to communicate a bigger, more enduring vision: their passion for updating traditional materials using high-tech processes that supports local farming communities will resonate more in consumer (and investors’) eyes than a simple purpose of being ‘just sustainable’. 

For unless there is a link in the consumers mind, each new line that a business might release is like incorporating a completely new startup from scratch. Apart from the tedious practicalities that come with this, reputationally, a business may come across as confusing, disparate – a jack of all trades with no specific expertise. This hardly reassures the ever more sceptic consumer. 

So how might a business navigate this issue? 

The move of purpose from a function to a passion comes from the core of branding and communication. One business that has tackled this successfully is Patagonia – the outdoor wear manufacturer that famously started out making pitons. It fast became the gold standard of equipment for climbers who were reassured by the products’ efficacy and safety. Back in 60s, this purpose was enough to grow their business given there were few competitors in the US.

Whilst quality of product runs through their philosophy to this date, that purpose alone is no longer differentiating. It was the founder’s hypersensitivity to their negative impact on the natural environment they love that actually drives the business today. In turn, they have created enormous brand equity and eye-opening campaigns such as their “Don’t buy this Jacket” campaign, which underscores its repair and recycle proposition of used attire. Their purpose is now broader but also incredibly unifying to their business.

Clarity of purpose makes a business more efficient and effective, more compelling to investors and more focused on R&D, enabling and encouraging a business to continuously evolve and innovate. By rethinking purpose, a business may diversify its offering without diluting its meaning; that is something that becomes all the more important as consumers look towards investing in businesses that serve a bigger goal that benefits everybody.  

About the Author

Nick Dormon

Nick Dormon

Nick Dormon is managing director of brand design and innovation agency Echo

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