Is social purpose enough?

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull recalls a conflict that arose during the making of A Bug’s Life. The creative team insisted upon releasing the film in widescreen, improving the cinematic experience; the marketers argued that widescreen would hurt DVD sales as it was less suited to home viewing. Steve Jobs, Pixar’s CEO, agreed with the marketers – widescreen would surely be financial suicide. Heads butted, bodies tensed, and eventually Bill Cone, production designer, stepped in to argue passionately that widescreen was crucial from an artistic standpoint. By the end of this conversation, Jobs saw that ‘to insist upon applying dollars-and-cents logic was to risk disrupting the thing that set us apart.’ That thing? Pixar’s purpose: to produce films that could change the world.

The film was released in widescreen. 

This anecdote resonates with me because it reveals a fundamental tension in our understanding of business – a tension that has crept into the question that this essay is trying to answer. What do brands set out to achieve? Is social purpose greater than – and therefore separate from – basic function? What is the business of business?

Humour me briefly and pretend that the purpose of business is making money. It’s a tempting thought, simply because it’s easy. With hard work and business acumen, profitability, on some level, is relatively achievable.  It’s measurable: compare the red with the black on your balance sheet and you’ll soon know whether your business is fulfilling its function. And, if you’re still keen on ‘doing good’, profit is surely a necessity. If you make good money, you can do good things. Social purpose becomes an afterthought. And the purpose of business? Short-term, tangible, achievable in short, sharp doses.

That’s all well and good, but true purpose isn’t like that. It can’t be tried on for size or measured on a balance sheet. It’s lived. It’s embodied. You wear it – your heart on your sleeve – every single day. You can’t just pick it out of thin air: it must overarch everything and yet be granular enough to feel true to you. And whilst the stepping stones may be within reach – Pixar’s founders wanted to create a completely computer-animated movie – the shoreline – in Pixar’s case, changing the world - is just a spot in the horizon. The likelihood is that you’ll never reach it, and that’s good. UKIP set themselves a tangible purpose. Now they’ve achieved it, they’re floundering. I won’t be sorry to see them gone.

Purpose is the reason you exist, the thing that makes you tick, the foundation for all you do. It should excite, inspire, engage. It isn’t, and cannot be, money. You don’t so much fulfil your purpose as fulfil yourself.

A man much wiser than me says that it’s not about branding, it’s about meaning, and meaning is always, to some extent, society-focused. Branding comes from the Old Norse, ‘Brandr’, to burn, and in the beginning, a brand was simply a depiction of cattle ownership, a mark of belonging. But belonging takes root in a social landscape: you cannot belong without having something to belong to. Branding has always been an acknowledgement that no man is an island, a foundation stone in the construction of a civilised society. There’s a beauty in the fact that ancient farmers literally burned their belongings to prevent society from figurative self-immolation.

Let’s step forward 3000 years. Victorian entrepreneurs, Richard and George Cadbury, built a business born on Quaker principles and social good. The establishment of the Bourneville Village ensured affordable homes, healthcare provision, quality education. The Cadbury brothers recognised something that we’ve perhaps forgotten: that business plays a fundamental role in community and vice versa. Commerce, in its most well-known dictionary sense, means an exchange or transaction. But a secondary definition relates to the dealings of a person or social class with another. Not all transactions are monetary.

That was then and this is now. Function and social purpose have cleaved. And yet, we live in a digital world. People are empowered. They research. They know what they want and what they want is purpose – Edelman’s brandshare report found that 87% of people want a ‘meaningful relationship’ with brands.[2] Woe betide you if you can’t provide that.

So there’s your commercial value. Profit isn’t why businesses exist but it is a side-effect of fulfilment of a business’s basic function: to have a purpose. Being purposeful informs everything you do. It allows you to hire the most-motivated people who will produce the best products and services on the market. It inspires people to buy whatever you’re selling. Social purpose isn’t an umbrella that sits above your business model. It’s a fertiliser, changing the conditions and helping you grow. Just ask the CEO of Nike, the company with the largest market share in its sector worldwide, whether social purpose has commercial value.

Make meaning, make sense, make a difference. Then you can make a profit.

But here’s the problem. Sooner or later, everyone will have adopted a purpose. In fact, the revolution has already started. That’s a Good Thing. But it changes the way in which organisations position themselves. Brands depend on a careful balance between three fundamental pillars: credibility, relevance and differentiation. To be relevant in the sector lends you credibility. But if you’re too far on the relevance side, you risk becoming generic.

To end at the beginning. When recalling Jobs’s change of heart over the format of A Bug’s Life, Catmull writes that he realised the risk of ‘disrupting the thing that set us apart’. Brands used to be superficial enough that having a purpose made you stand out. But that’s no longer the case. Meaning is becoming ubiquitous. So here’s your Catch-22: of course brands should consider adopting social purpose. Without it, you’re lagging behind, wandering around on one leg when everybody else has two. But to adopt it makes you just like everyone else. It’s important, fundamental, even, but it won’t solve your differentiation problem.

Social purpose is essential, but it’s no longer enough.

2017 ATTICUS AWARD WINNER - Under 30 Essay Prize