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Is "purpose" the Tesla of corporate comms?


Followers of the fortunes of electric car maker Tesla have had a ringside seat in one of the biggest stock market battles of recent years. In just over 12 months shares in Elon Musk’s company have risen 1000% giving it a market value of over $400 billion – that’s more than all of the other US car makers combined.

Fans say it is the future of transport – and it’s hard to argue against this – while the bears say it can never sell enough cars or batteries to justify the inflated price – and it’s hard to argue with that as well.

In a sense the current vogue for companies setting out their “purpose” is akin to the debate about Tesla. Yes it is the future and yes it is overhyped. But where in the scale between the two does it fall?

Let’s unpick “purpose”. The dictionary definition is “the reason for which something exists” which is a great starting point. So let’s have a look at a few purpose statements.

Unilever, which has been a bit of a leader in this field, says: ”Our purpose is to make sustainable living common place” adding “With brands that combine superior experiences, bold innovation and a strong sustainable living purpose. With brands that regenerate nature, fight climate change, and conserve resources for future generations.”

Ignoring the poor grammar, this is an aspirational statement, talking about where Unilever is going rather than where it is. It works as a way of creating a common direction of travel, and fits with how Unilever has behaved for over a decade.

Compare this to the purpose of NatWest – formerly Royal Bank of Scotland – which is “To champion the potential of people, families and businesses.” Really? I was once told the function of a bank is to acquire money from one source and provide it to another while making as much as you can for the service. And what is “families” doing in that statement? Customers are either people or businesses – families is a bit of PR fluff trying to create empathy. Companies put out of business by NatWest, people who have their homes repossessed and anyone unhappy about the level of bank charges, will not feel their “potential” is being “championed”.

Pilita Clark in the Financial Times recently took French defence and technology group Thales to task for its purpose statement: “Building a future we can all trust”, describing it as a “trifecta in the corporate twaddle stakes.” It’s also achingly close to EY’s “Building a better working world”, which I always though make the professional services giant seem less like an accountant and more like a construction company.

The problem with purpose is it’s like sincerity – if you have a purpose then great to state it. But if you don’t really have a clear purpose, you can’t fake it.

You believe Beyond Meat, the plant-based food maker, when it says “We believe there is a better way to feed our future and that the positive choices we all make, no matter how small, can have a great impact on our personal health and the health of our planet.”

You might just swallow the corporate purpose of miner BHP which "is to bring people and resources together to build a better world".

However do you trust clothing retailer H&M when it says its purpose is: “To drive long-lasting positive change and improve living conditions by investing in people, communities and innovative ideas”? There’s nothing here about fast fashion.

I suppose I shouldn’t criticise the purpose statement industry as it creates work for communications professionals. But keep it real folks. As Public Enemy famously said: “Don’t Believe The Hype.”

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© The Nisse Consultancy Ltd.

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