Simultaneously the new kid on the brand block, and the oldest trick in the book.

Depending how you look at it, purpose has always existed - it’s essentially the meaning of life, the foundations of religion, our raison d’être… Or it’s a recent renaissance for brand strategy - a software update for missions, visions, BHAGs, etc.

With businesses looking to build brands, leaders wanting to better engage their people, and organisations seeking to make an impact and grow, it’s not surprising that people grab hold of the idea of purpose as a panacea for other knottier problems.

Especially, sustainability.

Over the last decade I’ve seen sustainability ally and abandon buzzwords like ‘green’, ‘meaningful brands’, ‘better business’. I’ve watched it grow increasingly accepted, valued, and strategic as a tool for organisations. And I’ve seen it in consistent need of alignment with business, and inspiration for people.

A bit like going to the gym, we know it’s good for us but we’re not always in the mood.

So Purpose, steeped in zeitgeist and incontrovertible importance, is really attractive to sustainability. And because it’s also rooted in serving others and meeting real world needs, it’s an awfully tempting match. But that doesn’t mean they are synonymous.

Which is why there’s confusion when purpose is adopted as another way of defining ‘sustainable brands’ and ‘rounded business strategies’. And sometimes - like in this definition from Radley Yeldar - it’s less a well crafted disguise, and more the equivalent of sticking a fake moustache on sustainability and quietly hoping no one notices:

“Purpose can be defined through a brand slogan, a commitment to sustainable living, or schemes and projects that give back to local communities…”

This misguided brief was used to identify the ‘Top 100 Companies for Brand Purpose’ in 2015, as published in Marketing Week. The very idea of creating a ‘champions league’ of purposeful companies defeats the point - since purpose isn't about competition. And neither is it a slogan, scheme or project - however worthy they may be.

The proof leaps forth from the league table - with Unilever brandishing the trophy and Disney relegated to ‘purpose lightweight’. Unilever has rediscovered it’s social mission, and invested a lot of money in marketing its sustainability strategy and credentials. Laudable, influential, but not necessarily purposeful. Disney has held it’s purpose of ‘Making People Happy’ strong for a century. It actually teaches purpose, and has an institute dedicated to helping business pursue it. And their understanding of purpose would be a much better basis to assess against:

“Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfil a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change.”

I must make clear that both purpose and sustainability are important. Both live in the strategic and cultural ‘toolbox' for building a successful business, but confusing them is like trying to use a hammer to undo a screw.

Sustainability focuses on actions you take (what you do) or values you hold (how you do it). Purpose focuses on why you do it. Sustainability is an approach or a strategy. Purpose is a constant, which gives meaning to everything we do (including sustainability). Unlike sustainability, it doesn’t change based on what we do. Whereas sustainability must be material to what a business does, a business must be material to what its purpose is.

When we get this wrong, it’s at best confusing, and at worst, useless. It’s what leads to mission-led organisations confusing the impact they want to have with what really fuels their passion. It’s why companies inevitably struggle to build meaning and connection into their sustainability strategies that inspires customers and staff.

When used right, purpose and sustainability make a powerful team. Purpose gives sustainability the meaning and passion it needs to engage people. Sustainability gives purpose action and evidence. And ultimately while a purpose may not be inherently ‘sustainable’, the way it's lived should be. If not, it’s not enduring, and it won’t serve you for long.

Written by Laurie Bennett on May 25, 2016