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Practice Makes Purpose

“Every dogma has its day”

Anthony Burgess

It’s the run-up to Christmas and ’tis the season, it seems, for Campaign magazine to dust off the incredibly tedious, but seemingly un-killable, debate about Brand Purpose.

As the cost of living crisis starts to bite, advertisers get spooked about investment levels and execs start wringing their hands over the categorically false binary between Price and Purpose (and in doing so perpetuate the myth that doing the right thing and staying competitive are somehow mutually exclusive), there’s suddenly yet another excuse to reopen the particularly tired Pandora’s Box – just when it seemed that Patagonia had dropped the mic on the whole issue.

This is verily the gift that keeps on taking, the overdone Turkey of arguments, and yet everyone just keeps on coming back for seconds, and now thirds. Isn’t it time to end this thing before someone gets brand indigestion?

Whether you think that the purpose of Purpose is to galvanise an organisation around a higher cause, to save the world one widget at a time, to make adland feel slightly better about the grubby job of selling stuff, or just to keep industry talking heads busy in the run-up to their Seasonal bonus, now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the thing about Purpose that really shouldn’t have to be said (yet here we are):

The truth is that having ‘Purpose’ – of any kind – means quite literally nothing unless you act on it.

For example, if I decide tomorrow that my Purpose is ‘To be King of the World’ but in practice all I do is spend my days sitting on the sofa watching Flat Earth Netflix documentaries while wearing a paper crown then, well, it just ain’t happening.

Or if all the nations that attended COP 27 agree (as, actually, they did) that their Purpose is ‘To keep Global Warming to 1.5 degrees’ but, in practice, they’re going to do jack all about it then, again, that Purpose is utterly and totally meaningless.

Or indeed if Brand X decides that its Purpose in life is ‘To give a little bit extra to the world’ but all it actually does is sell overpriced banking services, act like a dead-eyed loan shark to customers in need and relentlessly squeeze its suppliers, then no dice.

It’s almost as if the more the world’s problems pile up, the greater the gap between Purpose and Practice, and the more brands (with some notable exceptions) seem happy to act like Purpose-shaped hot air balloons. It is, after all, easier to promise everything than to do something.

This isn’t a commentary on the value of Brand Purpose per se (although the benefit of giving your organisation an authentic, relevant reason to exist that has responsibility and inclusivity baked in should be pretty clear – and, no, thats not the same as forcing everyone to become a whale-saving non-profit). And we need to remember that purpose in the wider sense has been around ever since one of our distant ancestors looked around their dark, dank cave and wondered if they might have a higher calling ‘To invent a better way of life that doesn’t involve hiding from sabre tooth tigers, leather as the only fashion choice and early death’. But the industry needs to move on from its neurotic obsession with what Purpose means in a very abstract, philosophical sense, towards an altogether healthier focus on all the different ways it can be applied to the far more important job of galvanising groups of human beings to make life better and business kinder. However purposeful your Purpose might be, that means putting your money where your mouth is, it means making ads about what you’ve actually done not just empty hymns to hope, and it means acting on your values from the inside out – even (especially) when nobody’s watching.

After all, Purpose without practice is just politics. Finding your Purpose as a brand might be hard but it’s actually the easy bit – nobody gets a medal for just having one.

Which should probably be the final word on the matter but, let’s face it, won’t be.

Same time next Christmas?