Is purpose in danger of becoming a gimmick?

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I get excited when the idea of purpose gets any attention that could help the concept enter the mainstream. On the other hand, I worry about it getting co-opted by opportunists who would exploit it by using the shallowest interpretation of the concept in order to make a quick buck.

I’m not saying that’s what’s happening. But it did come to mind when I saw an announcement of a panel discussion around purpose at Cannes Lions. Now for those of you who don’t know, Cannes Lions is one of the biggest award competitions in the advertising industry. It also happens to take place in Cannes. On the French Riviera.

Sure, I’m a little jealous that I’m not going to the French Riviera for a creative convocation. But this is an event I think of more for selfies and self congratulation than for seriously advancing the development of a revolutionary idea like purpose. I hope they prove me wrong.

I’ve been writing about the importance of purpose for four years now. For the last three years, my firm has been refining a process that helps organizations discover and define their unique purpose, and then use it to inspire everyone from team members to prospects to investors and beyond. For those organizations, it has generated inspiring results.

So as I read about a workshop/panel/symposium on purpose on the French Riviera, I worry that it may make it seem like the latest advertising gimmick. Here’s the scenario that popped into my head. Imagine two old ad execs in their Speedos sitting on the picturesque beach at Cannes. Between cocktails, a conversation begins:

Chad: “You know, I think we can do something with this purpose thing.”

Trip: “You mean we could make it a practice area.”

Chad: “We’ll appoint a Director of Purpose.”

Trip: “I envision it as its own profit center.”

Chad: “It’s going to be just like that social media thing.”

Trip: “You mean clients won’t really understand it but they’ll feel like they have to have it and we can charge an arm and a leg for it?”

Chad: “Exactly.”

Purpose is bigger than a campaign

Maybe I have an overactive imagination. But here’s the thing. It could really set us all back if purpose gets narrowed to a practice area for agencies.

It’s not a program either. Like social media. A few years ago I imagine that scheme being hatched like this:

Chad: “This social media thing could be big.”

Trip: “We’ll hire a bunch of those young people.”

Chad: “What do they call them? Digital natives?”

Trip: “Yeah, those people. Then we’ll have them working 80 hours a week twittering and what not.”

We don’t need it to become another gimmick or profit center. Purpose should be at the heart of everything an organization does. Everything should be built on an undeniable and irresistible sense of purpose.

There should be a deep discovery that dives into the written and oral history of the organization. There should be collaboration across the organization, gathering insight from every corner of the company and building ownership among the team members. Representatives from all stakeholders should be there when the purpose is formed and validated.

Then it should be declared. Boldly. First, across the organization. Then with customers, partners, and investors. And then, to the world. But we’re just beginning. Because it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do. Which is why this isn’t like an advertising ‘campaign’. That is the shallowest interpretation. And what the old guys in the Speedos on the French Riviera are salivating about.

No, purpose must be proven. It must be lived.

At the very heart of purpose is the desire to make a difference in a life. In other words, to serve. So after we define the purpose, we must develop the things that prove our purpose is real. Things that demonstrate our desire to serve. For example, that could include a program that generously educates customers and prospects.

It could include how products are made or evolved. It could mean changing the way team members engage customers. And more. All these things have one thing in common. They demonstrate that this is more than spin. More than a gimmick. They demonstrate how we live our purpose.

Purpose is a journey. And like any journey worth taking, it will unfold before us. Surprising us with the turns, the detours, and the discoveries. It’s not a box to be checked in your marketing plan. It is at the heart of everything you do. In fact, it is the heart.

And that’s something too important to let those old guys on the beach turn into a gimmick.

Dan is an expert brand strategist and creator of the Big Audacious Meaning. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life. He regularly shares his insight here, on Linkedin, and at

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Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail.

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