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Does Every Business Need a Higher Purpose to Succeed?

Person holding a globe

Innocent drinks was founded in 1999 with a quest, ‘to help people live well and die old’.

It could immediately be extrapolated from the ‘purpose’ that the drinks are made from healthy ingredients. That is why, of course, the company is called Innocent and the logo is an angel with a halo.

Similarly, Dove’s campaign for real beauty which rallied against the airbrushed pictures of so-called ‘perfect’ women, reinvigorated the personal care brand. Its mission went to the heart of its communications. Portrayed in an authentic way, it was backed up with thought leadership and educational initiatives.

A ‘higher purpose’ can be described as an aspirational reason for existing beyond solely making money. Many enterprises have seen purpose as a way of giving their brand relevance, and obtaining competitive advantage, both in the battle for customers as well as in attracting employees.

There is no doubt that in the case of both Innocent drinks and Dove, ‘higher purpose’ contributed to the identity and profitability of the offerings. However, it is now widely proclaimed by many ‘so-called’ experts that rather than ‘purpose’ being a mechanism to provide some brands with meaning and prosperity, it has now become a basic necessity for business success.

This claim is simply untrue.

There are millions of prosperous small businesses, all over the world, where success is dependent on the owner, directors or partners. These companies do not have a brand but rely on the senior personnel within the organization. The company flourishes due to the personal relationships and individual reputations of the people in the organization.

These companies do not require a purpose beyond the humanity exhibited between client and customer. From accountants to lawyers, gardeners to electricians, car mechanics to florists there is an abundance of successful enterprises for which a ‘higher purpose’ is completely unnecessary. Really, when was the last time you asked a plumber coming to fix your boiler what their higher purpose is before you let them inside your home?

It is only when a company goes beyond personal relationships, and when brand becomes relevant, that an enterprise may find a purpose useful.

However, it is certainly not a prerequisite for success.

Amazon’s mission is to ‘be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavours to offer its customers the lowest possible prices’. This, however, is not a purpose. It is exactly what Amazon strives to deliver.

People don’t buy from Amazon because of any ‘higher purpose’. People are customers of Amazon because of the service it delivers. Yet, Amazon is one of the most successful companies in the world. If purpose is an absolute requirement for success, how could this be?

Even when a company purports to have a purpose, it is not necessarily the reason people buy. For example, Lego’s purpose is, ‘to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’. Yet, if you stopped customers by the Lego section in any toy store, and asked them why they were buying Lego, I am sure many more people will tell you that their children love it, that they used to play with it or that it is a fun activity that gets their children away from a screen for a while. I doubt that many will reply that they want to ‘inspire and develop their children to be the builders of tomorrow’.

Similarly, while Uber’s declared mission is, ‘to ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion’, I am not convinced that any of its customers would cite that as the reason for using the service. The far more likely explanation is that it is a cheaper and more convenient option than many of the alternatives. In other words, people don’t buy from Uber because of its ‘higher purpose’ but because of what it delivers.

For the majority of enterprises, success is far more likely to be determined by the product or service offering, its relevance, price, convenience and the company’s reputation, rather than any ‘higher purpose’ they try to convey.

This is not to say that having a ‘higher purpose’ will not deliver success to a particular enterprise. It can provide a brand with meaning, enabling it to be more relevant and desired. This, in turn, can lead to profits.

Even when consumers do not buy from an organization because of its purpose, it may still have value. It can enable a business to be more consistent in its communication and help attract and motivate employees.

However, to suggest, as some do, that for a business to be successful today, it is an absolute requirement to have a ‘higher purpose’ goes against the evidence and, while fashionable, is certainly not always the case.