In an age where products are increasingly similar and of equal quality, the opportunities to compete just on the basis of what you sell are disappearing. In fact, I’d go further than that and say, they’re as good as gone. Even if you know that your product has some sort of technical advantage over that of a rival, the chances of you continuing to hold that advantage or of that advantage being of such significance that consumers actually care are as good as nil.
So given that – how do brands look to compete? By my book, as product parity rages, competition between brands in today’s world is increasingly waged between stories and intentions. Both inside and beyond the walls of the corporate owner.
That’s because, for customers, tell me what has been replaced by tell me why as the shelves overflow with look-alike products.
And for employees, tell me what to do has been replaced by tell me why we are doing this as rules give way to reasons.
A journey for change
In this context, purpose is no longer a lofty description of what you want to achieve as a business. It has to be a description of what you think must change, and it needs to provide inspiring reasons for staff to take that journey.
To build a successful purpose, I believe you need 5 things:
- An enemy – something or someone to direct a whole lot of pent-up energy towards. That’s not necessary a competitor. It can, for example, be a situation. As Tom’s have shown, your enemy can be altruistic such as the fact that so many children are without shoes.
- Motivation – something that is worth expending that high energy for.
- Curiosity – the wish to probe what you do in order to find how you’re going to pull off the purpose you’ve set yourselves.
- Authenticity – a culture that commits to being real and truly sharing.
- Zag – a purpose that is noticeably and inspiring different to what everyone else says they are trying to do.
Get it right – and you have a cause that is powerful enough for hundreds of people to leap out of bed every weekday morning and get to work. They are quite literally looking to make a change to the world they believe in because, as Hugh MacLeod expressed it so perfectly, “Life is too short not to do something that matters”.
The strategic role of purpose
But there’s also another key role for purpose, and that’s in the marketplace. Professor Richard Ellsworth believes that purpose has a deep role to play strategically and competitively.
Purpose clarifies which decisions are critical and informs how such decisions should be made.
If a decision does not tangibly shift the brand towards its purpose then it is essentially off-target or at least non-critical, and should be ruled on in that light. Furthermore, the purpose that a brand chooses is actually a significant point of differentiation. That purpose, he says, deeply affects how a company should choose to respond to the competitive forces around it and determines the degree that a brand’s strategies and goals can diverge from those of rivals who may be driven by different purposes.
In a world of increasing sameness, how you as a business intend to change the world, and the story you tell yourselves and others around that intention, is what will galvinise your people and distinguish you as a brand and a competitor from all the other brands claiming to be “good corporate citizens”.
I believe that the most powerful combination any brand culture can create is people who have a purpose to work to, a story that they agree on and a strategy that will help them get to where they need to be as a business.
So – four steps to becoming a purposeful culture and a purposefully competitive brand:
- Give your people a purpose to fight for – something inspiring, something sustaining, something different from what every one of your competitors comes to work for.
- Work as a business to build a story that will guide how you progress and that you can remind each other of, every day.
- Create the strategy to get you from where you are to where you need to be, and put clear deliverables, action points, timelines and performance measures around each aspect of that shift.
- Tell the world what your people come to work every day to change in the world. That way, your people will be more motivated than ever to making it happen – and your customers will support you because they too want to see it happen.