Brand Strategy / Corporate Culture

Nonsense with Purpose

It is undoubtedly a megatrend to formulate the corporate purpose. That’s why management consultancies, advertising agencies and other specialists are increasingly pulling a purpose out of their hats for their clients. Unfortunately, too quickly – often the meaning falls by the wayside in the rush.

The marketing manager of Lidl Switzerland was probably caught on the wrong foot. In the April 4 issue of Persönlich, he provided detailed information about the impressive growth of the retail company and was surprised at the end of the interview with the question about Lidl’s purpose. The answer also became the title of the article: “Our Purpose: the best value for money in the market!” Unfortunately, it is not so simple with the Purpose, because it is more than a customer promise.

But the best visual lesson on how Purpose development can go wrong was offered this spring in a webinar by GfM Gesellschaft für Marketing. The snappy title of this webinar: “Purpose boosts Performance”. An extremely successful advertising and media specialist from Germany explained how it works: Purpose is simply about positive psychology. The psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl proved that even Auschwitz was much easier to bear if meaning could be found in a hopeless situation. Ouch! Only four days later, the writer Adolf Muschg also made an unskilful Auschwitz comparison – at least Muschg was then rightly criticized. The GfM webinar went on without any protests – probably the participants simply stopped spitting. But not the speaker. He continued: It is very easy to find out whether a purpose is really a purpose. You only must check it against the 17 UN goals for sustainable development. If the purpose fits one of the 17 goals, it makes sense. His consulting firm defined the purpose for the Douglas perfumery chain in Germany, for example. This is: “We open everyone’s eyes to the beauty of uniqueness, bring it to life and make life itself more beautiful! For a world in which everyone feels seen, heard and appreciated.”

Now, Dove has been saying the same thing for years: “Dove has always challenged common ideals of beauty around the world and has been committed to a concept of beauty that transcends age, clothing size, skin color and other outward appearances. We believe that beauty is not defined by a certain shape, size, or color – beauty is what makes you yourself. Authentic. Unique. Genuine.”

The timing of Douglas’ Purpose launch didn’t seem to be a problem either. Douglas is in the process of closing 60 stores and laying off 600 employees to focus more on its online business. How do you think the phrase “For a world where everyone feels seen, heard and valued” will go down with the 600 people laid off? But more important to the speaker seemed to be the external impact of Purpose. He proudly explained how the Purpose became a snappy advertising campaign. The campaign claim: “Let’s do beautiful.” Purpose – what a performance boost!

Purpose is neither a Unique Selling Proposition nor a Unique Advertising Proposition. Therefore, it is of little use when creative teams or brand gurus go into themselves and deliver “the big idea” to the company for their Purpose. Credible are not even the UNO’s 17 goals derived from the turbulence sentences. A purpose is good when it is highly authentic for the company and touches and moves the employees.

The drugstore chain “dm-drogerie markt” could have served as a model for Douglas. The company was ranked first in the “Purpose Readiness Study Germany 2021,” and no other company in Germany has a higher level of credibility. The dm purpose since 1992: “Here I am a person, here I shop.” The phrase is an expression of the company’s consistent commitment to the idea of “humanity and partnership” in all its relationships with customers, employees, retail partners and the environment. More than 62,500 people work for dm-drogerie markt across Europe in over 3,700 stores in currently 13 European countries. dm-drogerie markt is also one of the most popular employers. In the largest employee survey of “Germany’s Best Employers 2018,” dm was voted number one in the German trade. A current example of the drugstore company’s diverse commitments is the approximately 300 dm Corona quick test centers. In this way, dm is helping to establish a reliable rapid test infrastructure in Germany so that an opening strategy based on negative rapid test results is possible in Germany.

It would probably also have been possible at Douglas to define a purpose from the history of the Douglas perfumery, founded in Hamburg in 1910, that moves and touches people in the company. And if not, then it would have been better to leave Purpose alone.

Two years ago, Heads and Perikom organized an event on the topic of “Purpose”. One of the speakers was Christoph Sieder, then ABB’s head of communications and recently named “PR Manager of the Year”. One of his very pointed statements: He was not a friend of Purpose communication. “I find this soul strip-tease that is taking place at the moment to be completely perverse and partly incomprehensible.” Purpose is the innermost thing a company has. It would be negligent to aggressively communicate this to the outside world. And the second speaker, Barbara Wicki, then Head of Organizational and Personal Development at Cembra, surprised with astonishing openness and posed the rhetorical question: A bank with purpose? Rather not, she stated. Consumer loans, credit cards and leasing will not save the world. And that’s why Cembra would not ascribe a higher task to itself by means of an imposed purpose, but would concentrate on meeting customer needs as best as possible.

A good purpose is not invented but found. It is the driving force of the company, something almost intimate that needs to be fathomed carefully. Those who want to formulate the purpose and penetrate to the “inner beauty of the company” must first and foremost ask the right questions. As Einstein put it: “If I had only one hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes asking the right questions. From the deepened analysis about the essence and the raison d’être of the company, the formulation then follows in logical consequence. This may sound banal to outsiders (Here I am a person, here I shop.), but the credibility and power of such an authentic statement can have a lasting effect on all reference groups, not just a short-term boost.

Contributed photo: Miguel Bruna, Unsplash

— Ralph Hermann / 6 June 2021