a pothole filled with water reflecting a plane in the sky representing a way out

The Promised Land exists, but the Path to Purpose is peppered with potholes

April 6, 2021


Finding your purpose is hard. Executing it is even harder.

At Firefish we’ve learned a huge amount about what it takes to find and deliver your purpose. In this article, we bring all that experience to bear and give some answers to the burning questions our clients tend to have. If you’re struggling with any aspect of brand purpose, we’d love to help. So we’re offering a free, one hour purpose consultation to talk through issues you may be having and offer the benefit of our experience to help you come to some answers.

by Daniel Rose, MD, FIREFISH UK

We all know the drill by now. Purposeful brands are the way forward. They have a stronger role in society – and therefore a longer term future. They’re more focused in what they do, and as such can communicate and innovate more effectively. And, we’re told, they’re more profitable. If not in the short term, then certainly in the longer term as consumer choice and preparedness to pay a premium becomes increasingly dictated by a brand’s social impact.

There’s a fair amount of harrumphing and cynicism that goes on around it. Woke-washing doesn’t wash, we know that much. And when it goes wrong, it can go REALLY wrong.

But, on balance, I’m all in.

If you strip marketing effectiveness away for a second, it’s essential that we have brands who put their impact on society at the heart of their existence. But even if you add marketing effectiveness back in, I believe that having a clear, powerful, authentic and credible purpose should ultimately lead to more effective brand development – and a more profitable brand.

But as those of us who are fast approaching a mid-life crisis can testify, finding your purpose has never been easy. And indeed, once you think you’ve found it, turning it into tangible and meaningful action is even harder.

I’ve worked with lots of brands over the last few years who are on that journey. And there are some consistent questions and challenges that come up:

  • How do I find a credible, meaningful role for my brand in the world? (NB this is even harder when your brand started life as something not very purposeful at all…!)
  • Does my purpose need to answer a current societal tension?
  • What role does my product need to have in my purpose? Does it need to be part of it at all?
  • How do I embed purpose without limiting marketing or innovation creativity?

The answers to those questions are often heavily brand dependent, but I’ve got a bit of a headline for each of them based on experience:

How do I find a credible, meaningful role for my brand?

Let’s start with the hardest one! The answer to this question lies at the intersection of brand, product and culture. Start by looking at what your brand and product currently do for people – what do they bring to the world that’s positive? What deep human needs do you meet – at both a brand and product level? You also have got to acknowledge the flip side…what are you doing that’s bad for the world? Where are you doing harm, or where have you done harm in the past? If you don’t address these as part of your thinking, you can quickly descend into greenwashing or woke-washing.

These pillars – both good and bad – then become your credible start points for purpose. They are a list of the things you currently do that you can amplify and expand, and the things you do badly that you can address or reverse. If you’re lucky, you may find a purpose that can do both simultaneously.

From here you overlay culture – what’s going on in the world? What are the important, powerful needs that people have right now – and are likely to have for many years into the future (more on this later)? What are the big societal issues that need to be addressed?

You’re now in a position to map your brand’s strengths and weaknesses against both bigger human needs and pressing societal issues. By stress testing your role in each of these spaces, you can get to some start points for purpose.

Does my purpose need to answer a current societal tension?

I’m pretty clear on this one – no, it does not.

Indeed I would go further: if every brand tries to build its purpose around a current social issue – diversity & inclusion, climate, mental health – then we’re going to end up with a very narrow set of brand purposes and a very narrow set of behaviours and actions off the back of them.

That’s not to diminish the importance of these subjects – they are the fundamental issues of our time and they do need addressing. But if every brand’s purpose is centred around fixing a societal problem, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for brands that are fun, or pleasure focused, or irreverent and silly. And are these things not fundamental human needs to? Max-Neef’s Human Needs Model and BMB’s Humour Report would say they are – and we would agree.

It may also be a question of how you define “current societal tension”. Ikea’s purpose is to make great design accessible to everyone. That’s attacking a very real and prevalent problem – that of the gap between people’s aspirations and their resources – but not necessarily one that naturally springs to mind when you start thinking about things that fundamentally need addressing in the world.

What role does my product need to have in my purpose? Does it need to be part of it at all?

This one is less clear cut. The answer from my perspective is ideally yes – your product needs to have a pretty central role in there, because if it isn’t, your credibility for stating your purpose as the reason your business exists (for that’s ultimately what ‘purpose’ means) is called into question. If you make biscuits, the main function of your company is to provide delicious biscuits for people to eat. If your product doesn’t do anything to deliver your purpose, it suggests that the main reason your business exists is for some other reason completely unrelated to your product – and that’s just not credible. It also makes it very hard to innovate. Try coming up with new biscuit ideas off the back of a purpose based around inclusivity. You might succeed in year one, maybe even year 2, but beyond that you’re going to struggle.

Does that mean your product has to physically deliver your purpose in its entirety? I don’t think so. Axe’s purpose for the past couple of years has been around improving men’s mental health. As a male grooming brand the products have a role to play there in male confidence, but no amount of deodorant is going to fix depression or anxiety. The product’s role helps with the purpose, but doesn’t deliver it.

How do I embed purpose without limiting marketing or innovation creativity?

Here’s where lots of brands are coming unstuck. They found their purpose – it had a good fit with their brand, there was a link to the product, it was a subject people felt passionate about. Now they have to execute it – to live it and breathe it throughout every touchpoint of the brand, internally and externally.

Year 1, they’re probably ok.

They make a big manifesto campaign explaining the purpose to people and all the great things they’re going to do to help. It scores well in quant testing because everybody loves a brand that does good. They develop initiatives to drive action and create a tangible impact. The team are galvanised behind it. Everything’s great.

Year 2, things are looking a bit less rosy. There’s an innovation that’s been in the pipeline for a couple of years and it’s ready for launch, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with our purpose. Suddenly last year’s lovely new tag line doesn’t really fit on the end of the new ad we need to make. It feels disjointed and incongruous. We also find ourselves with a load of exciting innovation springboards for the future, but only a couple of them fit with the purpose. Are we going to limit our potential as a brand in order to stay true to who we’ve decided to be? Suddenly there are dissenting voices within the organisation…did we get the purpose right? Should be find a new one? Is purpose a valid brand model at all??

If you’ve found yourself in this year 2 quandary, you’re not alone.

I see it day-in, day-out in the brands I work with. Sometimes there is a genuine issue with the purpose – perhaps it’s too narrow. Perhaps it’s got a really tenuous link to your core business (product). Perhaps it’s just not very inspiring! But often the issue is more with how the purpose is being treated within the organisation. It may be being taken too literally, or being seen in a very one dimensional way. Sometimes a slight re-framing of how we see purpose – from single-minded message or goal to a broader territory with different levers that can be pulled at different times – can result in a much easier way of working with it.

How can we help?

If you’ve read this far, and are struggling at any step of the way with purpose, then Firefish can help.

We’ve helped many brands both find and execute their purpose – and we have a clear philosophy and methodology for how we do that at each step of the process. It’s not always about research – sometimes some simple consultancy or working sessions can provide the unlock you need to move forward.

So whether you’re starting from scratch and working out what you want to stand for, or struggling with an existing purpose and need to work out how to better embed it, get in touch.

For the next 6 months, we’re offering a free purpose consultation for anyone who wants to talk through the issues they’re having and work out a plan for how to resolve them. Want to book? Then just get in touch and we will set up a digital consultation for you and one of our purpose experts.

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