Why do only big companies talk about purpose?

Written by
Henry Playfoot

24 Apr 2019

24 Apr 2019 • by Henry Playfoot

We have, it seems, entered an age of “woke capitalism”. Edelman, Deloitte and others all attest to the fact that consumers and employees now expect companies to take a clear position on a whole range of social issues. Even BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink has been calling on businesses to focus on purpose above profit. The days of merely increasing shareholder value are long gone: the message is clear, your business needs to have a purpose.

And yet – if you go to one of the UK’s thousands of small businesses, family firms or independent shops, you’d be hard pushed to find a purpose statement in sight. In fact, if you did, it would seem distinctly odd. That’s because, for workers in those businesses, there’s a very proportionate link between their efforts and the outcomes of the business. In simple terms, a worker in an independent bakery makes a nice cake and their business prospers. Their contribution has made a tangible difference in a way their colleagues can appreciate; their efforts are evidently meaningful.

Cogs in the machine

But at large organisations, most of us aren’t so lucky. The majority of us are very small cogs in very large machines (one of the reasons why working at a start up has become such a common cultural fantasy). It’s much harder to see how uploading a document to the intranet, securing a better-priced catering supplier for the regional office or negotiating a new software licence, is having much real impact on the world.

Partly as a result, big business is facing a crisis of engagement. According to Gallup, only 8% of UK employees today would class themselves as “engaged”. That’s not great. But there is room for big businesses to hope. Gallup’s data also suggests that when a company has a clear purpose, employees are more motivated, more productive and more likely to stay.

So for a big business with a poorly motivated workforce, the logical next step is to hire an agency and start crafting a purpose statement right? Not so fast. In January this year, Gillette, owned by P&G, launched its ‘Best a man can be’ campaign, a provocative or (depending on your viewpoint) deeply cynical advert, tackling the reductive, square-jawed masculinity the company has profitably traded on for years. According to the media commentariat, Gillette’s #MeToo bandwagon hop was a serious misfire, with thousands of affronted men threatening to grow revenge moustaches.

From the inside, out

What went wrong? We don’t have to look far. To ‘join the conversation’ about the reality or extent of toxic masculinity is to miss the point. Gillette’s stab at a purpose started with the brand team: it was about re-positioning in response to falling market. Admittedly, Gillette did commit some small change to a charity that relates to the campaign, but the product and the way it’s made stayed the same. And it’s still selling razors and other identical shaving products to women and charging them a premium for the pleasure (and the fact that they are pink). In other words, the company has adopted the clothes of the caring corporate, but their commitment is clearly skin deep.

P&G’s long-time rival Unilever, on the other hand, is a company that has taken careful, considered action on its carbon footprint and its supply chain over the years.; not to differentiate its products, but to try to do business in a more sustainable, equitable way. And beyond that, some of the company’s campaigns, such as the one for Lifebuoy soap, have actually saved lives. It’s likely that employees who worked on those campaigns felt a sense of pride when they went home, sensing that their work had made a difference, however small. Purpose like that, built from the inside out, takes years and requires a willingness to invest in the short term for a much longer-term upside.

As for companies that view purpose as just another marketing initiative? They risk turning off not only their customers but, more importantly, their staff.

Henry Playfoot is a pitch doctor and strategist. He helps individuals and organisations develop, refine and communicate what they do.