For marketers, vision and purpose should stand above commercial considerations

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In September 2014, CVS Health, the USA’s biggest pharmacy chain, announced it would cease selling cigarettes in its 9,600 outlets, putting a line through $2bn (£1.5bn) of annual revenue.

You might ask what a pharmacy was doing selling fags in the first place – this would be like popping into Boots for your 20 Rothmans – but profiting from sales of tobacco was a norm for the sector. All five of CVS Health’s major competitors engaged in it, and still do.

The change was driven through by a marketer, Norman de Greve, who had a personal reason to fight the inevitable internal battles: his father had died of lung cancer when he was seven. But there was another pivotal factor that made the timing pertinent: the group had recently changed its trading name – from CVS Caremark to CVS Health.

A cynic might justifiably ask whether it really took the inclusion of that new word to suddenly make it realise what business it had been in all along. What else could a pharmacist group be, but a health business? A realist, more in tune with the rhythms of business, would nod and see how these things can happen – how entire industries can drift and be carried along on a tide of incremental shifts until they end up a hemisphere from where they started.

For a combination of reasons, then, the CVS business was inspired to focus in and ask itself a simple yet deeply exposing question: what are we here to do? Once the answer had narrowed down to ‘helping people to better health’, it was clear that some tough decisions would follow.

Vision and purpose are weighty statements that should reside at the highest levels of the corporation and stand above commercial considerations.

Moments like these happen in business, and they need to. Often they happen at the outset, when the enterprise is first created by impassioned founders motivated by factors beyond just profit. They might happen again much later, when that sense of drift has become inescapable. Or they happen after a crisis. But through all the heat and sweat and confrontation, in industries as diverse as airlines and breakfast cereals, the fundamental question is the same: what are we here to do?

Business, being what it is, likes to bring a bit of dignified terminology to the crystallisation of decisions arrived at in these moments of introspection. For most of the last century, and much of this one, ‘vision’ was the preferred term. More recently the fashion has been to talk about ‘purpose’ – often preceded by the qualifiers ‘higher-order’ or ‘noble’.

Not unreasonably, companies tend to pride themselves on having made the tough call – at having reconciled the contradictions of looking at their business through a societal, not just mercantile, lens. They might communicate their newly phrased vision or purpose outwardly, so that investors know what they are buying into, and communities and potential employees get a better feel for what drives the organisation.

There is nothing wrong in any of this. Why should there be? What’s wrong is what comes next.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – A true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it

Three phases

In phase one, a business guru takes an interest in these companies with their strongly held reasons for their very existence. Could that be the secret of their success? A blockbuster book duly follows, to prove the link to profit, such as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s ‘Built to Last’, or Jim Stengel’s ‘Grow’.

In phase two, a more forensic mind takes a look at the data and concludes the explanation for outperforming the market is flawed. Richard Shotton has done this recently, blowing a crater under Stengel’s simplistic claims.

Phase three is where we are now, with marketers scratching their heads at the intensifying debate and wondering aloud whether the crafting of a ‘brand purpose’ really will help them grow market share.

The answer is simple: it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking whether taking up yoga will make you richer. There may indeed be a correlation between yoga and wealth – but you would be hard put to prove causality. And coming to your practice with that rogue objective in mind is to ensure that your attitude will be out of step with the whole point of the discipline.

Vision and purpose are weighty statements that should reside at the highest levels of the corporation and stand above commercial considerations. As the CVS Health example showed, they may even imply financial sacrifice. They are simply not everyday marketing decisions.

With that question put to one side, others become easier to round on. For example, how do I fill in the ‘noble purpose’ box on my sub-brand strategic framework? Answer: don’t. Try instead for a ‘brand point of view’ – a less elevated statement that should link to, but not simply replicate, organisational purpose and values.

Incidentally, never use the words ‘higher-order’ or ‘noble’ in front of your agency, or what you will get back is one of those mawkish four-minute videos. No wonder that, for Tom Fishburne, aka the Marketoonist, brand purpose has been the gift that keeps on giving: he doesn’t have to exaggerate much to ridicule the hubris of a mint that promotes world peace.

In truth, few marketers get the chance to influence the very soul of an organisation at a moment of change. Rightly, such opportunities don’t come up too often. Those marketers that do should take inspiration from de Greve and have the courage to insist that market deeds live up to noble words.

Far more marketers will be custodians of brands owned by corporations with a statement of vision or purpose somewhere in the archives. They should dust it down, blow away the cobwebs and ask how it might serve as deep inspiration for their approach to innovating for, and engaging with, today’s consumers. They will find this authentic fusion of inner truth and outer manifestation professionally satisfying. And justly so: it is what we are here to do.

New perspectives on purpose

This year has already seen a flurry of activity and theoretical exploration on the subject of purpose and its claimed role in brand attractiveness, employee motivation and market growth.

In April, Admap featured a report from Accenture on a global consumer study of over 29,000 consumers entitled ‘To Affinity and Beyond: From Me to We – The Rise of the Purpose-led Brand’. It claims that 62% of customers want brands to ‘take a stand’ on current issues such as sustainability or fair employment, and that 50% are attracted to buy a certain brand if it ‘supports and acts upon the causes we have in common’.

According to Accenture, today’s consumers are “champions of brands they believe in – and foils to those they don’t”, with price, product quality and customer experience seen as “important but table stakes”.

In the March issue of London Business School Review, Vodafone’s global organisation and people development director, Sharon Doherty, talked about the importance of purpose in the organisation’s digital transformation. Doherty says that the brand’s purpose statement – ‘To help people live a better today and build a better tomorrow’ – is vital in providing a common focus internally and in helping attract and retain talent, and that these virtues are particularly important when a business goes through a major transformation.

Kraft-Heinz’s vice-president for marketing EMEA, Vicki Sjardin, has also recently spoken out on the issue as part of celebrating the brand’s 150th birthday. Sjardin claims that although Kraft-Heinz has not been as open about its purpose as her previous employer, Unilever, the organisation is, nevertheless, purpose-driven – guided by the original purpose statement of Henry J Heinz: ‘Doing common things uncommonly well’. To mark the birthday, though, the company has rewritten its purpose – now captured as ‘Helping people make progress in their lives through brands’.





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