Purpose, more than just a fad. Is it going mainstream?

Everyone’s talking about purpose. And it’s not always good news: “the new greenwashy buzzword” or “the preachy new CEO buzzword” or again “the empty buzzword”. And so on and so forth.

An early adopter, Skating Panda has spent the last 10 years focusing on increasing social impact, solving global issues, catalysing purpose – long before it became fashionable. Because of this, we’ve been spending the last part of 2019 challenging ourselves and asking each other whether purpose is more than just a fad. Is it going mainstream?  

We reflected back and pulled together insights and evidence from our experience working with a variety of organisations on Purpose briefs. We talked to more than 20 businesses, ranging from international FMCGs and fashion brands to professional services and online businesses (and many more). We hosted a roundtable, together with our friends at Britain Thinks, and asked the same question to other purpose practitioners.   

Did we come to a conclusion?

We believe so. Purpose is definitely more than just a fad. It’s going mainstream (and rightly so).

But let’s be clear, by purpose we don’t just mean that piece of paper with your vision and values printed on it. Purpose lives in your actions, rather than staying on a wall. It is the fundamental reason why an organisation exists, other than making profit. And as such, it sits at the centre of your business strategy rather than at the periphery. It acts as vital principle and benchmark for decision making throughout the whole business – from sustainability and CSR, to business growth and investment, to human rights and research and development. It is the anchor of your business strategy.

If we agree on the above, then it’s easier to see how this kind of purpose unlocks many business opportunities. There are fundamental connections between corporate purpose and competitive advantage. For instance, having a clear sense of corporate purpose drives:

  • TRUST – with employees, customers and wider stakeholders. In fact, trust unfolds when a business’ key actions and behaviours are clearly aligned to the organisation it says it’s going be – its purpose – and show a pattern of alignment when compared.
  • INNOVATION – as organisations with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to embrace diversity and different options, encourage innovation among employees and provide the tools and resources to realise their full potential.
  • ACCOUNTABILITY – because public expectations of businesses have never been greater, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.

These are only a few examples, but they show that those businesses able to harness the power of purpose to drive performance and profitability can enjoy a distinct competitive advantage.

As with anything, there are also risks attached to purpose. These are the same risks that can turn it into a meaningless trend. The biggest of all is what we like to call “purpose-washing”, that is:  just because every company may be forced to have a higher purpose, it doesn’t mean that every company will do it well. Nor does it mean that every company will take it seriously or that purpose will automatically penetrate the hearts and minds of business leaders and change their behaviours. “Purpose-washing” happens when companies plaster – or even retrofit – a higher purpose veneer over business as usual. And we know that when it’s just about looking good, purpose loses its authenticity. And it just doesn’t work.

It’s hard to tick all the boxes of purpose, but it’s possible. It takes time, effort and resources – and the work we do here at Skating Panda shows that it’s worth it. It’s worth it for the businesses we work with (and many more) and most importantly for our planet and its people.

by Camilla Beretta, Strategy Executive, Skating Panda