When it comes to purpose, a lot of companies get lost trying to figure out which direction to take. How can one define purpose? Moreover, the purpose of a brand or company? To get a clearer sense of what it means to be purpose-driven, we have talked to Benoît Heilbrunn, professor in the marketing department of ESCP Business School’s Paris campus.
Professor of Marketing
ESCP Business School
As Martin Luther King once stated: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”. When it comes to leadership, especially in times of crisis, guiding people with a purpose will always make actions more relevant.
Nowadays, as the economic health of our society is a worthy indicator of overall well-being for citizens, companies play a major role in shaping societal trends, and can even attain the status of change-makers. In an era when change happens fast and creates “new normals” regularly, being able to lead with purpose, rather than with mere authority, is key to adapting and thriving.
In the face of climate change, inequalities or societal mutations, purpose comes as the driving force for more cohesion between individuals — whether they are coworkers or members of the same community.
But how does one foster cohesiveness amongst the people they are meant to lead? In other words, what does it mean to be purpose-driven and how can one actively practice such leadership?
We have asked Benoît Heilbrunn, professor at ESCP Business School and expert in the fields of brand and design management, as well as semiotics and philosophy.
How to define your purpose
When talking about purpose as a concept with practical applications for brands and companies, it is important to have a somewhat clear definition. How can a company choose the right purpose, and towards what objectives should it be directed?
For Benoît Heilbrunn, “the purpose is, to the brand, what the raison d’être is to the company. Asking the question of purpose means that we do not answer the question of what type of benefit we offer to customers (the WHAT?) nor how we market it (the HOW?), but that we are more concerned with the WHY? Why does the company exist and how would the world be affected if it didn’t?”
In other words, any company looking to define its purpose should sincerely consider in which ways what is produced or sold affects the lives of other human beings — be it customers or stakeholders.
“It is a way of understanding how business can positively affect the lives of individuals and societies, which is the paradigm of the transformative economy. This is important, because, unlike human beings, organisations must constantly justify their existence in order to remain,” explains Benoît Heilbrunn.
How to integrate purpose into your brand or company
“Purpose refers to a question that, unfortunately, has been abused and overused: the one of values. Values do not simply mean the convictions we share, but also the resources one is willing to sacrifice to achieve an ideal,” states Benoît Heilbrunn. “When we say that we are committed to ecology, or diversity or the development of each individual, what are the economic, psychological and temporal sacrifices that we are ready to make? This is why a real purpose has an economic cost that is very often an obstacle to its deployment. This is also why a real purpose only makes sense if it is possible to assess its feasibility and to assess its effective implementation with precise and measurable indicators.”
In other words, as leadership expert Warren Bennis put it: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”. This means that purpose without concrete action would be, as Benoît Heilbrunn himself argues: “Mere communication tactic, or, at worst, bullshit.”
A real purpose has an economic cost that is very often an obstacle to its deployment. This is also why a real purpose only makes sense if it is possible to assess its feasibility and to assess its effective implementation with precise and measurable indicators.
But purpose can also be political. Indeed, it is possible to make a statement into a purpose (and vice-versa).
For Benoît Heilbrunn, a company’s purpose has to offer a vision and a perspective for the future potent and distinctive enough to bring people together: “The right kind of purpose avoids or circumvents any form of soft consensus by taking clear and assumed positions that integrate the expectations of individuals and sufficiently deviates from the dominant ideology to make sense by difference.”
Utility: the right criterion for purpose?
To truly work, this vision also has to be practical too: “Purpose is what makes employees want to get up in the morning to work and participate in a collective adventure. Purpose has to be part of a project and express a collective momentum towards the future. This is why it must articulate a utopian dimension to technical, economic and human reality.”
Now, conveying a vision strong enough so that other people are willing to follow your lead and work towards the same objective is not an easy thing to do. To define a purpose, one may want to resort to notions such as ethics, morality or the common good.
But for Benoît Heilbrunn, these are just empty words if not used wisely: “I truly think that morality has nothing to do with purpose. Ethics, however, can participate in a purpose that aims for the greater good. But sustainability, inclusiveness and caring for others are not sufficient ingredients for a good purpose. No more than innovation, audacity or creativity, which are only cream-pie purposes inflicted on us. The only criterion that is valid in my opinion is utility, provided that utility is not reduced to the functional or to a form of primary selfishness.”
Sustainability, inclusiveness and caring for others are not sufficient ingredients for a good purpose. No more than innovation, audacity or creativity, which are only cream-pie purposes inflicted on us. The only criterion that is valid in my opinion is utility, provided that utility is not reduced to the functional or to a form of primary selfishness.
Hence, purposeful companies aim at bettering people’s lives through providing useful tools or services: “Anything that makes sense and can significantly increase the well-being of each and every one is useful. For example, the raison d’être of La Poste, seems, to me, exemplary in this respect: At the service of all, useful to everyone, La Poste, a company of human and territorial proximity, develops exchanges and weaves essential links by contributing to common goods of society as a whole.”
How to become a purpose-driven leader?
Now that we have a better idea of what kind of purpose is available to companies and leaders, how do these notions and ideals translate on the field? As our expert points out, charisma, as well as the title and persona of a leader or CEO, make a difference here: “Purpose-driven leadership de facto implies that the CEO is also the brand director, the brand being considered the voice of the company, able to inspire the various stakeholders.”
In purpose-driven companies, hence, the leader’s persona and the brand’s motto often tend to merge in the corporate brand and the commercial brand. “Brands like Apple, Tesla, Hermès or MAIF illustrate that well. These types of companies are forced, through the prism of their brand, to speak out on subjects that are not only or not directly related to their products or markets. This is why such brands cannot exist without a vision, that is to say without a singular point of view on society as a whole. Whether it is speaking out on the energy transition, the fairer sharing of resources or even the repairability of objects. It is precisely this new power acquired by brands to talk about society as a whole that gives brand owners a new charismatic legitimacy.”
And this change in paradigm impacts the type of leaders we admire and are willing to follow: “This represents both an opportunity and a risk for these companies’ leaders. They are now expected to address the brand’s various audiences to talk about cultural, political and societal subjects. We have long sought to explain the charisma of a leader with extraordinary individual qualities: his or her physique, intelligence and strategic vision. Today, it is courage that perhaps best defines this type of leadership.”
We have long sought to explain the charisma of a leader with extraordinary individual qualities: his or her physique, intelligence and strategic vision. Today, it is courage that perhaps best defines this type of leadership.