Is Purpose just Virtue Signaling?

There is a lot of buzz about purpose in branding and business. There is also a lot of misunderstanding about the role of purpose. Many think it means to turn your company into Mother Theresa. Not true. Just like companies saying they are one thing when they are not because it’s popular or will attract a particular customer, it is being misused. Just like anything, companies can create a new PR campaign using purpose to try to change the perception of that business or industry. When it’s incongruent with who they are, it does even more damage. There is only one real way to build your business on purpose — non-profits being an exception because they often have purpose built-in to their vision and mission.

Purpose; as in being a “cause”, a Purpose

Perfect if you are a not-for-profit and everything is transparent and legit. Otherwise, if you are a for-profit company, the product or service better be almost indistinguishable to the “cause” itself.

Outsider’s Perspective: You are a For-Profit that is very transparent why they need to be profit-based.

Insider’s Perspective: I work for a transformative company.

Result: Attract those that are not in it for the money but to make a change.

Better Strategy: Convert to a B-Corp and rename and rebrand to match who you are.

Purpose; as in supporting a cause. Supporting a Purpose

Using purpose does not mean having the Marketing or PR Department choose an unrelated cause for which to donate a percentage of a sales or profit.

Outsider’s Perspective: You’re fake and you are trying to be reverent. Virtue Signaling

Insider’s Perspective: I work for liars.

Result: Repel authentic customers and attract disingenuous employees.

Better Strategy: Choose a cause that is related to the story of the brand, business, or founder.

Purpose; as in providing meaning

Businesses using this technique as their definition of what it means to be a “team player.” This is widespread in creative firms where the agency promotes doing whatever it takes to impress and wow the client or internal superiors.

Outsider’s Perspective: This agency is freaking creative and amazing

Insider’s Perspective: Employees feel like they always need to outdo the last project.

Result: The company gets a reputation for not letting people have a life outside the business.

Better Strategy: Make it clear that employees are to give it their all, but the company is not their reason for being.

Purpose; as in reason for being

Aligning “the why” of the company or why the company was started by the founder with the branding effort.

Outsider’s Perspective: You are who you say you are.

Insider’s Perspective: We are all trying to make this small part of our world better by implementing the creator’s vision.

Result: Brand Congruency — the fulfilling of an unspoken promise or expectation of the business or brand.

As purpose and meaning start to get integrated into core business strategy and brand development, we are sure to see everyone jump on the bandwagon not to get left behind. Some may employ ”purpose“ language and use it for all the wrong reasons; however, it will be obvious to us all that they are empty words only.