Opinion: Why Asking ‘WHY’ Will Always Have Greater Impact

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The author reflects on the debate around the relevance of ‘Purpose’. He contends that brands are magnets of meaning, and that creating meaning is both a humanitarian and financial force and will always lead to better businesses.


When the world gets up every morning and gets on with life, we never declare that 8.1 billion people have done well today in their lives. What grabs our attention and creates more news, is when 81 people kill each other, probably out of hatred.

This parallel is what exactly mirrors the conversation that is now centering around the idea of ‘Purpose’, with a bunch of marketers at one end who believe that business can generate commercial success through social value, and another bunch at the opposite end, who possibly have even dabbled with Purpose, but are now fervently proclaiming the death of this idea.

In the new social-ordered world of marketing that is fuelled by shorter attention spans, boredom for the existing, quick results and attention-grabbing new vocabulary, the opposing views of the latter are obviously drawing greater attention and making screamers for enthusiastic publishers too.

As an evangelist of Purpose, I believe that the best way of getting at the truth is by reflecting with others, who have opposing views and who share my interest in finding the truth, rather than being proven right.

The issue, I believe, is never the subject or the thought of Purpose, but some of the corporations or people who jumped onto the bandwagon in the Purpose craze that was generated over the last two decades or so in the world, and the way they went about it. Esoteric, theoretical, or Greek-to-me statements of Purpose that were good for wall decorations, woke-washing, and stone deaf with little or no connection to what the company or brand actually does as a business, have created deep damage to an idea that is an unlimited resource to create a better world and an enduring legacy for business people around the globe.

Purpose in Business

To begin with, Purpose is not a marketing or branding idea. Purpose, to me, is a force that has been present since the dawn of time. Throughout our history, people have desired meaning, as much as money. Brands (and/or businesses) are magnets of meaning. Creating meaning is both a humanitarian and financial force and will always lead to better brands, better businesses, better callings, and even better lives for everyone involved in any context of existence.

Thinking of capitalism, the predominant idea of which is a business run for profit by individuals, it actually began with giving. That’s how, arguably, the commercial brands came into being in the first place. Jamshedji Tata birthed the Tata empire more than 150 years ago to serve the community. William Lever began with Lifebuoy to save the lives of people more than 125 years back. Or another national icon like Amul, which is older than independent India, was founded as a response to the exploitation of small dairy farmers by traders and agents. There are many more inspiring stories like these across the world.

Many of those purpose-led brands, through their foundational ideals based on fundamental human values, continue to not only serve their consumers and themselves better, but also the wider, rapidly evolving community called ‘Generation Purpose,’ led by millennials and Gen Z who constitute two-thirds of our population today.

Various studies over the years, ranging from the coveted IPA Effworks, BCG, Accenture, Kantar, and more, have clearly proven with empirical evidence that brands with authentic purpose have delivered better on appeal, distinctiveness, trust, commitment, image, highly engaged employee and consumer base, and business impact.

Even successful corporations went public endorsing the Purpose journey that they had undertaken and the resultant positive effects. And post COVID-19, Purpose got accelerated with the role of the private sector on the frontlines being more evident, as governments, central banks and the WHO realized that they cannot overcome any crisis on their own.

With so much testimony, every brand should naturally be taking the path to Purpose. But why then is the questioning and bashing of Purpose happening? Why are business leaders getting it wrong? Why are so few brands succeeding?

Path to Purpose Vs Path to Purchase

The easiest part is letting go of the path to Purpose and sticking with the path to purchase, contended merely to stay afloat in the sea of sameness as a brand. The hardest part, however, isn’t letting go but rather learning to start over, with better understanding, intent, and focus. There simply is no brand, just as there is no human being, who wouldn’t be interested in knowing its reason for existence.

The first key is bridging the gap between aim and action. For most of the brands, Purpose ends with articulating it. It is never acted upon or lived, and just lies there passive or asleep. Without clarity of action, a living plan in which people can clearly see the role of the brand/business in their lives, it is prone to failure.

Purpose is not an exercise of ticking boxes. It is an everyday, every manner or step of responsibility that reminds your promise. It is for making a small difference based on big convictions or actions that are in alignment with what you say. If you say one thing and do another, you will lose the trust of others. Our actions either add to or take away from the trust and loyalty others feel toward us. When the things we say and the things we do are aligned with what we believe, we are fully living our Purpose.

The second is having an authentic Purpose. Not a bolt-on Purpose. In an era of radical visibility, the younger people place greater importance on a company’s/brand’s purpose that is truthful and are more likely to vocalize their opinions, and turn their backs on brands that falter. If the Purpose isn’t authentic and doesn’t come from the ethos of the brand/business, it doesn’t serve the cause.

Relevance and Authenticity

The product or service that forms the delivery mechanism, should have a role in bringing the Purpose alive, and yet it should transcend the category the business represents. There are hundreds and hundreds of cases where marketers made up a brand’s purpose based on what they thought the market wanted, with only a tenuous link to their business. What the marketplace wants at any time is authenticity. When you are genuine, people know it, feel it, buy it, and buy into it.

The third area where Purpose is often contentious is the mental space that it occupies beyond the product, service, or category it represents. Purpose doesn’t have to be righteous, profound or create world peace. It doesn’t always have to be large and societal, it could be small and personal too. And I think they represent something quite interesting, particularly from the standpoint of marketers or anybody else who is trying to embark on the journey, because while the really earth-shaking large, societal-led Purposes are probably too big, too volatile, and ultimately too important to even think about in marketing terms, the smaller everyday Purposes are more accessible, and sometimes in need of jump-starting or cultivating. There are countless opportunities for brands to connect with these small Purposes, or possibly even to launch a modest Purpose of their own. But the product has to have a natural fit to the cause it chooses. Else, it looks dishonest and unreal.

New Boundaries and Experiences

Therefore, a Purpose can be based on several fields of human values. It can stimulate experiences of happiness or limitless possibilities. Think of Disneyland. It can heighten the ability of people to relate or connect with each another in meaningful ways. Think of FedEx or TOM’s shoes. It can help people explore new boundaries and new experiences. Think of Patagonia. It can lift the confidence, strength and security of people. Think of Surf Excel or Tata Tea. Or it can affect society broadly, by also challenging the status quo and reinventing categories. Think of Dove.

Finally, Purpose is much more beyond marketing. A brand cannot inverse into its values and promises or what it stands for, just through some clever advertising and public relations initiatives. A whole lot of brands are suffering on this count because their Purpose is limited to such initiatives on an annual basis, either at shareowners’ conferences, a mushy film, or an empty slogan. The job of marketing as a tool is to credibly empathise, engage and elevate people, but the purpose is always the business that the brand is into.

The meaning of a brand is to find its gift, and the Purpose of that brand is to give its gift away to the audience it serves. And as we know, the world always loves the giver more than the gift. It’s a simple, universally relevant, and timeless truth.

The author is Group Chief Executive Officer –India  & Chief Strategy Officer – APAC,  MullenLowe Lintas Group.

(The article was first published in Free Press Journal’s Brand Sutra)