The Power Purpose

It is big, and it is beautiful.

But before I introduce you to The Power Purpose, it may be worth reminding ourselves about the powerof purpose. It is big, beautiful, wrenchingly powerful, and very effective! Purpose is the one concept that has driven humanity harder than any other. While it is surprising that the concept of purpose entered business theory only in the last decade or so, what is not surprising is the evidence mounting by the day, in favour of purpose-driven organizations and brands.

A couple of very large, painstakingly put together global researches, both using Millward Brown data (Optimor  and BrandZ respectively) provide strong proof. They reveal the power of purposes/ideals/values in delivering discontinuous commercial success compared to the best of the rest.

  1. The Jim Stengel Company informs us that the 50 best performing brands are each built around a central ideal/purpose. On average, they out-performed the S&P 500 by 400% over a sustained period
  2. Ogilvy – BrandZ study
    The BrandZ study has a measure that predicts business success – the Brand Voltage score. Ogilvy has a measure that defines how ‘idealistic’ a brand is – the Brand Idealism score. This study suggest that brands with a high ‘Idealism’ score, grow their ‘Voltage’ year-on-year. In other words, brands that are built around ideals are more likely to experience strong business growth.

Raj Sisodia, David Wolfe and Jag Sheth, in their Wharton published book, Firms of Endearment state that, ‘Companies that choose to put their employees and customers first are outperforming conventional competitors, i.e. – those who focus on shareholders and profits on the order of 8-to-1’

If more and specific evidences may raise interest in the subject further, please reference the Appendix and the Bibliography.

So, the question today is not whether an inspiring purpose can change the fortunes of an organization or a brand. The pressing questions really are :-

  1. How does one get to a powerful purpose that can drive an organization’s future?
  2. We’re living in the creative age. Can a powerful purpose give an unfair advantage to organizations in an era in which ideas matter more than anything else?
  3. Can a powerful purpose equip an organization to face the challenges posed by an increasingly digital and networked world?

Here’s an attempt to answer some of them.

From The Power Of Purpose, to ‘The Power Purpose’

There was a time when the role of company Vision Statements was to inspire everyone inside, and inform the world outside about the reason for its existence.

Not any longer.

Vision statements of a thousand corporations are littered with well intentioned purposes, whose only remaining purpose is to adorn the opening pages of their annual reports. Too many well defined purposes that get articulated thru’ months of toil, simply fail to inspire collective action. At best, they trigger a spark which fizzles out. Why does this happen? Why do some purposes inspire sustained action, and others don’t?

Life is a great teacher. So are myths, culture, sport and history. The best organizations have always realized this, and have learned from them. And when it comes to the subject of finding a powerful purpose that can help an organization thrive in the future, it may be wise to actually look back.

Jainism is a religion that originates out of India. According to Jainism, as Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik talks about, to discover and define the right purpose, your gaze needs to be right!

Here’s some elaboration.

You could gaze at ‘your own world’. This gaze starts and ends with what matters to the organization, to the total exclusion of what the outside world might need. As examples, think of all the perpetrators of the financial crisis – Lehmann Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc. A purpose defined on the back of only internal motives (read profit/share/growth/etc.) will come unstuck, as there won’t be any emotional traction for it in the wider world.

You could gaze at ‘the outside world’. This gaze is so singularly focused on the external world, that it misses seeing things the way they are internally. Think of youth brands that are no longer youthful, because their marketing is run by a bunch of oldies, or brands that are based on ‘authenticity’, but out-source their manufacturing to sweat-shops filled with child-workers. Nike, with its eyes on India’s most loved and played sport, ran a famous cricket commercial here a few years ago which wowed the marketing community more than consumers. Why? They did not have a cricket shoe to sell at that time! Talk about posturing.

There are problems with both the gazes. People who gaze at ‘their own world’ end up being a bit selfish, and those who only gaze at ‘the outside world’ are in danger of being unauthentic. Both are equally incapable of getting to a powerful purpose. One’s resolve is non-inclusive, and the other’s will not last the distance.

Many organizations manage to identify things that might matter to the outside world, but most fail as they don’t ask the fundamental question – do the things that matter to the outside world also raise passions internally? Or vice-versa.

And then, there’s the gaze that matters.

Thru’ this gaze, a person sees ‘the outside world’, thru’ the lens of ‘her own world’. And that is when there’s a complete match in the beliefs, values, dreams and definitions of success of the person, and the world at large. Only such a gaze, as Dr. Pattanaik reminds us, helps discover and define a truly powerful purpose.

When an affronted Mahatma Gandhi’s personal agenda matched that of the collective psyche of a nation, he created such a purpose that it recruited 400 million driven individuals into a movement that freed India!

When Ahmed Dhani’s own passion became the voice of an entire population in its endeavour to resist the tide of religious extremism in Indonesia, he became proof of a powerful purpose in action. He composed ‘Laskar Cinta’ (Warriors of Love) in 2004, in response to Laskar Jihad’s atrocities and madcap ideologies. The album was not just a best seller, it also inspired young Indonesians to embrace its message of love, peace and tolerance.

These are not just purposes. I call them Power Purposes.

When the purpose-driver (the CEO/CMO) aligns ‘her own world’ – in other words, the organization’s world, with ‘the outside world’ – does a purpose assume proportions of a Power Purpose. When the stake-holders personally feel as charged about the purpose that the organization or the brand has identified to pursue, only then does a purpose become a Power Purpose.

Or simply put, the power in the purpose comes from the force the organization can put behind it.

Take Louis Vuitton. In 2008, it re-defined the meaning of ‘voyage’, as something more inspirational, rewarding and substantial. And it re-defined its purpose as ‘the companion to exceptional journeys’. The power of the purpose can be felt even today. In 2011, Millward Brown declared LV as the most valuable luxury brand, more than double the value of the next brand in the category.

LV continues to succeed because the match between its internal passions (luxurious craftsmanship) and societal needs (put the joy back in journeys that are getting increasingly stressful) led to its Power Purpose – ‘become the companion to exceptional journeys that transform lives’.

And now dear reader, if you think that you too may have the faint contours of a Power Purpose visible in the horizon in your organization, be careful. The discovery and articulation of a Power Purpose is just the beginning of the journey. The obstacle that has laid many a potential Power Purposes low, is waiting to strike a killer blow.

The Hurdle facing a potential Power Purpose

Measurement. The holy grail of management. In this era of extreme accountability, any suggestion that some elements of business may be tough to measure accurately and dependably, is likely to be seen as corporate blasphemy. So let me ask you a few questions? How much do you think your mum loves you? How badly do you think the Wallabies want to avenge their defeat at the hands of the All Blacks at the next Rugby World Cup? How desperate is Tim Cook to demonstrate that Apple without Jobs is still as delicious?

It’s as if we, as human beings might feel moved by thoughts like “Seven generations in one picture – priceless” – as a card brand suggests, yet secretly, as marketing professionals, we would want to measure its possible price! Ironic!

We all believe time is an objective truth, which can be accurately measured. It’s something you either have, or you don’t. So, why do we sometimes need to kill it? And why does it fly? Time is relative, and it is a subjective truth. Similarly missions are objective, but beliefs, values, visions and purposes are subjective truths. As Dr. Pattanaik in his video suggests, it would be a shame to not admit powerful subjective truths into business thinking, just because they’re difficult to measure. And admit them, we have to. As Kotler suggests in Marketing 3.0, we have decisively moved into the values-driven era of marketing.

There are many things in life that can be measured, and some that simply can’t be. All it takes is wisdom and an inspired senior management team to recognize the difference.

So am I saying there’s no role for formal research in helping define The Power Purpose? No. We must just remember that beliefs and purposes are ‘felt’. And feelings are not easy to gauge. However, to borrow a word from Mark Earls – an ex-Ogilvy thinker, we need to use ‘bricolage’, or a combination of highly sensitive (and sensible) qualitative and observational research, alongwith NLP, ethnographies, and semiotics to get a feel for budding ‘power purposes’.

‘Getting a feel for’ and ‘justification of the choice of’ the power purpose may be the only reasons to use research. It is relatively easier for personality based companies to come to a Power Purpose, as the leader’s passion often leads the organization’s priorities. But the best way to discover the right Power Purpose that lies unravelled within and outside in a process company, would be to identify a core group of people (the organization and the planning agency), and equip them with the right framework to travel on this complex but rewarding journey.

What must be measured however – objectively and tangibly, is the effect of activities that an organization or brand undertakes based on The Power Purpose. More so, as a Power Purpose’s scope of results often includes not just hard business results, but other strategically important business KPIs like a brand’s future earnings potential, talent, and company reputation.

The Five Big Virtues of A Power Purpose

An organization fully committed to a Power Purpose can expect rewards beyond the hard and the commercial. Here are slightly softer outcomes that can often mark the real difference between good and great organizations

  1. A Power Purpose makes difficult choices easy
    We know that, more than anything else, it is the choices we make that determine how we finally turn out – as individuals, or as organizations. We have all faced the tension of having to make a choice – especially when faced with two equally powerful alternatives. The centrepiece in the acclaimed Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is the war between two families – the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Lord Krishna is on the aggrieved and the weaker side – the Pandavas. When Arjun, the Pandava prince is confronted with the difficult task of having to kill FAMILY on the other side, Krishna reminds him of Arjun’s purpose, which makes his choice clear – ‘Dharma’, or setting a wrong right and fighting for justice! In this age of ‘pizza home-delivery in no more than 30 minutes’, sometimes I wish a brand had the vision to ask me whether it’s the time that matters, or the pizza?
  2. A Power Purpose makes creativity inevitable
    An entrepreneur is best defined as ‘a person whose ambition is greater than his resource’. Such an entrepreneur has no option but to ‘find a way’. In a recent survey by the Legatum Institute, 81% of Indian businessmen said ‘jugaad’ or the ability to find a way to get things done, was the key reason for their success. The same applies to an organization that takes on a Power Purpose. No organization, however muscled, finds it easy to fully resource a Power Purpose. But its desire and will to achieve the Power Purpose makes innovation and creativity its only recourse. ‘How badly do you want it?’ is a powerful provocation to get people to imagine and do things they’ve never done before.
  3. A Power Purpose releases hidden energy, when needed the most
    Proof of this lies in the innumerable human comeback stories. When all seems lost, it is The Power Purpose that makes ordinary people do extraordinary things. The Japanese women’s football team, or Nadeshiko Japan – comprising of part-time convenience store workers and small business assistants living in ‘borderline poverty’, defeated the high and mighty to win the Women’s World Cup in 2011. When asked about the secret of his team’s success, Norio Sasaki, the head coach, in a reference to the horrific quake that Japan suffered a few months earlier, said, “Our players can give power to the disaster survivors. And I tell them – when you’re struggling, think of the survivors, and “ganbare” — persevere and fight on until the end.” A Power Purpose  is the secret energy charge that makes people rise when on the count.
  4. A Power Purpose works like a communication virus on autopilot
    It’s easy to get obsessed with the world ‘digital’ nowadays. And unfortunately, such obsession drives us more into the nuances and technicalities of the medium. What we often forget is that those using the digital medium are people first. And hence it is much more important to obsess about the issues that matter to those who use the medium. The biggest proof of this in India in 2011 was Anna Hazare. In a corruption-ridden society, Anna, a 74 year old digital green horn, stoked the biggest anti-corruption mass movement seen in India in the last 30 years. All on social media! A Power Purpose, based on the issues that matter to people at large, can give exactly such a handle for brands and organizations.
  5. A Power Purpose helps attract the ‘right talent’
    A study by Ready, Hill & Conger – an agency focussed on helping organizations attract talent in emerging markets suggests that ‘purpose and culture are amongst the most important factors to attract talent in BRIC nations’. Kotler in Marketing 3.0 quotes a poll in which 50% of MBA graduates were willing to take a pay cut to work with a socially-responsible organization. As more people yearn for meaning in their personal lives, organizations that lead with a Power Purpose will attract a disproportionate share of talent.


The identification of a great societal need or tension that a higher purpose can resolve is just the beginning of this exciting journey. Thru the right ‘gaze’, an organization needs to discover, articulate and align its internal passions with its chosen purpose.  Doing so can help it reap rewards far beyond normal expectations.

A wise man had once said – a principle isn’t a principle till it costs you money”. Maybe in the future, ‘a principle won’t be a principle till it makes you money’.

Money, and much more.

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