The purpose of a business purpose


“My mom told me I had a big jaw.” 

“My chin protrudes a little bit. Especially when I smile.”

And, now read these descriptions: 

“She was thin, so you can see her cheekbones. And her chin was a nice, thin chin.”

“She had nice eyes, they lit up when she spoke.”

Not a huge difference between the first set of descriptions and the second set of comments, but created a huge impact.  Let me show you how:  

Have you heard of forensic sketch artists? You may have seen them in the movies creating a visual description, a sketch of the criminal on the basis of description by witnesses. They are trained to sketch based on verbal descriptions. The bath soap brand, Dove hired a forensic artist to sketch a few women. For a change, these were not missing or in-search-of women, but regular women who described their own features to the artist who had to make a sketch without seeing them. Separated by a curtain, women sat next to the artist and spoke about their own features. ‘A big jaw,’ ‘protruding chin,’ ‘fat face’… kind of descriptions. 

Dove was on a mission. A mission to showcase mirror to reality. The forensic artist made sketches of these women. The same artist was then requested to sketch the same women again, this time described by women’s friends and their acquaintances. This time words that filled the air were, ‘nice, thin chin”, “eyes lit up when she spoke” etc.

Not a huge difference between the two descriptions of the same person, but a big revelation on how most women think about their own beauty and hence confidence. 

We believe beauty should be a source of confidence and not anxiety. That’s why we are here to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential.

This is not just a marketing campaign, this is the purpose of the brand Dove, a Unilever brand. 

In todays’ Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to ‘purpose,’ with a focus on Business Purpose. In the leadership course on Habits for Thinking, one of the fifteen habits is ‘aligning to the purpose.” In this article, at this time of the year, a time to reflect and make new plans, the focus is on business purpose and the impact on individual growth.  

The dictionary meaning of Purpose:

  • the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.
  • a person’s sense of resolve or determination. 

Purpose, business purpose, the reason why the business should exist, was brought back in focus at Unilever by Chairman Paul Polman. He made sustainability the core of the company’s corporate strategy, embedding it in every stage of the value chain. It reads on their website as:

Our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace.

It’s why we come to work. It’s why we’re in business. It’s how we inspire exceptional performance.

When the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) launched, Paul needed everyone on board, not just a department. The company also embedded purpose in its brands. From Lifebuoy soap’s global handwashing programs to Dove’s positive-body-image campaigns, dozens of Unilever brands have connected in a genuine way to a larger need. 

Paul Polman in an interview: Well, what’s very clear is, small or big, you cannot be a sustainable company if you’re not sustainable yourself. You cannot be a purpose-driven company if you’re not purposeful yourself, finding your purpose, fighting for things that you believe in, be it our children or future generations.

Let me tell you the story of another company, Patagonia, an American company that sells outdoor and adventure clothing. Its mission since its inception, even before sustainability was a common conversational topic, has been “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Recently, the company revisited the purpose by being more direct-  “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” Patagonia, in the business of making activewear, is not only actively involved in supporting climate guardians, but the company is also an activist. It has taken bold steps including filing a lawsuit against President Trump over national monuments. 

According to Kendall Bronk, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University who studies how purpose impacts wellbeing throughout the lifespan, Bronk defines purpose as having a goal in life that you care deeply about and that contributes to the world beyond yourself in some productive sense. She breaks down purpose in three components:

  1. It’s an ultimate goal that shapes your short-term choices and behavior.
  2. It is personally meaningful, coming from within. In other words, no one is standing over you forcing you to pursue your goal; you are self-motivated. The goal imbues your life with importance and value.
  3. Finally, a purpose in life goes beyond the self, leading you to want to make a difference in the world.

The purpose is not a strategy. The purpose is why you exist.

Often, the brand purpose is mistaken for CSR initiatives. The mission and vision statement of a company is also often treated as the purpose. Simply, a brand purpose is the reason which brands stand for and thinks beyond the bottom line. A brand’s purpose defines the role of the brand in society. 

Purpose at business defines action, brings new ideas

Patagonia, the seller, encourages to use your product for a longer period of time. Instead of offering new product, it nudges the customer to mend it, repair it and keep it in play. 

Keep It in Play.

One of the most responsible things you can do as a consumer is to keep your stuff in play as long as possible—and our care and repair hub can help you do that.

Purpose shapes your communication:

When the brand is driven by a purpose, it looks to connect with its consumers deeply and meaningfully. The brand through its communication shares values, its belief and becomes a leader in showcasing a path. Communication attracts the right kind of employees, builds a sustainable, focused culture, and works on the mission collectively. 

Purpose is not absence of profit:

In 2018, Unilever reported that Sustainable Living Brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business, compared to 46% in 2017. Continuing the mission to be purpose-driven, in 2021, the current CEO Alan Jope, announced, “Win with our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation. Purpose-led brands have been at the heart of Unilever throughout our history and purpose continues to dominate our thinking and our portfolio today as it becomes even more relevant to consumers. We will underpin our focus on purpose with differentiated science and technology that ensures our brands and products have superior quality and efficacy.’

Patagonia’s purpose drives consumer behavior and increase in revenues. Patagonia has always given 1% of sales to fund grassroots environmental organizations. This year they announced that 100% of global retail and online Black Friday sales will be given directly to grassroots nonprofits working on the frontlines to protect air, water and soil for future generations. This is what their CEO reported after the sale:

“We’re humbled to report the response was beyond expectations: With your help, Patagonia reached a record-breaking $10 million in sales. We expected to reach $2 million in sales—we beat that expectation five times over. The enormous love our customers showed to the planet on Black Friday enables us to give every penny to hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations working around the world.”

Very few companies have a well-defined purpose. A purpose is a drive and one can align his own purpose with his work. Like, a school bus driver’s purpose is to ferry children safely. Safety becomes his purpose, not just a duty. A team manager’s purpose could be to lead with empathy. The purpose is a drive, both a personal drive and a business drive. Purpose evolves over time and it takes a shape that may not be the same as what it was during its inception. 

A purpose-driven venture is a determined venture that navigates both highs and lows with ease. 

The two descriptions of the same women had a little variance in words but a massive difference in the impact. One description was filled with confidence and positivity and the other with doubt and anxiety. Similarly, there is a difference between a purpose-driven team and a team without a purpose. Purpose kindles energy that not just fuels growth but powers the walk through the crisis too. Seems small, but has a larger than life impact. 

2 thoughts on “The purpose of a business purpose

  1. Very well articulated & purpose driven. Purpose is like fuel to the vehicle 🚗. It takes time to be purposeful. Well done Vishakha. Very nicely embedded the Dove brand story…

  2. Beautifully written Vishakha. I believe every organisation and leader should have a purpose for the business they are in..which should be clearly defined and should percolate down to each individual.The brand should invest and communicate this through purposeful story telling..the way Dove has been doing it…

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