A few years ago I watched a relatively obscure Japanese film where Vinnie Jones plays a hitman in the midst of an existential crisis. Right before a kill, he’d pause and ask his soon-to-be victim, “What is your function in life?” The stammered response was never to his satisfaction and obviously, he made short work of the poor soul. These days, when I sit in meetings and hear the word “purpose”, I smile to myself as I imagine Vinnie Jones bursting into the room and asking his famous question. Replacing “function” with the word “purpose”, of course.
If you work anywhere in the general vicinity of advertising and marketing, you have almost certainly heard this word. Slathered generously across PowerPoints and Keynotes by marketers, strategists, and creatives, there’s no escaping purpose.
Personally, I love the idea of a brand that is brave enough to declare that its bottom line is not the only reason it wakes up in the morning. And indeed, there are many who do just that in a smart, non-intrusive way. Tailor and Circus and The Whole Truth in India come to mind. These two companies have made their respective crusades of body-positive innerwear and truthfully healthy snacks a part of their DNA. To the point that anything they say or do will always be seen through the filter of this brand's purpose. Great for business, excellent for creativity.
Indeed, purpose works best when it aligns itself beautifully with what a brand already does very well. Coke quenches your thirst. So it’s perfectly acceptable, and applauded even when Coke brings clean water (not fizzy drinks) to needy communities in Africa. Because purpose, like a brand tagline, needs to be picked with care. The rule of thumb is simple: only stand behind the cause you can credibly contribute to. And most importantly, stick with it. Purpose, however well-meaning, is significantly less effective when it’s short-lived. Stay true to what you believe in and stay the course. Long after the topic stops trending.
That said, while the need for every brand to have a purpose is obvious, I can’t help but wonder. Does purpose always need to be a large, higher-order thing? Or can it be simple? Lighter, even. “Our purpose is to make you laugh on a Monday morning.” “Our purpose is to bring back fond childhood memories.” In a world where every brand is preoccupied with solving humanity’s most pressing issues, let’s not underestimate the power of “smaller” purposes. The ones we can all resonate with. The ones that speak to our deepest needs as human beings. And the ones that even Vinnie Jones can’t argue with.
The author is senior creative director, Virtue APAC, India.