Originally published in Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchek.
Companies are turning to “purpose” and “authenticity” as a way to engage consumers and employees. But it’s hard enough to find a purpose in life if you’re an individual, let alone an entire company. And being authentic is a bit like being cool — sometimes the harder you try, the less you are.
So what’s a leader to do?
The first step is to recognize that there are different kinds of purpose. Sometimes purpose is about values — who you are and what you stand for. Other times it is about value — what you do and how it benefits others.
The ultimate goal would seem to be having your values and value aligned: have what you do reflect who you are, have what you stand for guide what you make, and have your value to the community enhance your value to customers and shareholders.
But in a social age, this kind of purpose isn’t enough. The problem comes down to a simple preposition. Most leaders think of purpose as a purpose for. But what is needed is a purpose with.
Customers are no longer just consumers; they’re co-creators. They aren’t just passive members of an audience; they are active members of a community. They want to be a part of something; to belong; to influence; to engage. It’s not enough that they feel good about your purpose. They want it to be their purpose too. They don’t want to be at the other end of your for. They want to be right there with you. Purpose needs to be shared.
To understand the power of shared purpose, it’s useful to look at the mission statements of leading companies. To be clear, I’m not equating mission statements with company purpose. But they illustrate the point, and in fact are remarkably representative of the differences between the companies. So with that caveat, let’s look at our first mission statements from Adidas and Nike:
Adidas: The adidas Group strives to be the global leader in the sporting goods industry with brands built on a passion for sports and a sporting lifestyle.
Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
*”If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Notice how you respond to each statement. Which one do you feel more a part of, regardless of whether you are a customer or shareholder? Adidas puts the emphasis on value and values. But Nike goes further, addressing not only people’s interests but their sense of who they are. Adidas is for, while Nike is with.
Let’s look at another example, this time between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts.
Dunkin Donuts: Make and serve the freshest, most delicious coffee and donuts quickly and courteously in modern, well-merchandised stores.
Starbucks: Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
Dunkin Donuts’ purpose is clearly for customers, and it delivers on this purpose exceedingly well. But there is something different about Starbucks’ purpose. It is a purpose that is achieved with its customers.
Again, mission statements don’t always reflect a company’s true purpose. But in these cases, I think you would agree that they are fairly accurate representations of the company’s approach to the market, its engagement with customers, and its perception as an “authentic” brand.
The relationship of shared purpose to corporate social responsibility is worth exploring a bit further, this time by comparing Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Under the label “Performance with Purpose,” Pepsi has declared both a mission and a vision.
Mission: Our mission is to be the world’s premier consumer products company focused on convenient foods and beverages.
Vision: PepsiCo’s responsibility is to continually improve all aspects of the world in which we operate — environment, social, economic — creating a better tomorrow than today.
This is a perfect example of a “Values and Value” approach to purpose. The vision covers values, and the mission covers value. But something is missing. There is no shared purpose here. Nothing for people to participate in, belong to, engage with, co-create, or share with others that aligns the commercial side of the business with social responsibility.
By contrast, Coca-Cola has declared as its mission:
To refresh the world…
To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…
To create value and make a difference.
While the third line is a bit generic, the first two lay a stronger foundation for a shared purpose. It is perhaps no coincidence that Nike, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola all feature the word inspiration in their mission statements. You can’t inspire someone without their participation and engagement.
How can you create your own shared purpose? It’s simple, but not easy. The essential question is:
What is the shared purpose that …
a) We and our customers can work on together?
b) Is a natural expression of who we are and what we stand for?
c) Connects how we make money with how we contribute to the world?
When you apply this lens to the brand we have covered here, you can see how Nike, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola pass the test. Nike to inspire the athlete in all of us. Starbucks to nurture the human spirit. And Coca-Cola to refresh the world with moments of optimism and happiness.
As you formulate your shared purpose, don’t go for what you think it should be. Look for who you already are. How you already connect with your customers. What your fans already say about you.
Remember, this is not something you are going to do to them, or for them, but with them. It’s a journey you will be on together, hopefully for a very long time.