If We Can't Live on Bread Alone, What's Your Business Purpose?


The question of purpose can range from the pragmatic to the profound. Still, the line between personal and professional meaning is increasingly blurred as society gets wealthier, more privileged and more socially conscious.

Marketing expert Peter Drucker famously said: "The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer". Maybe you agree, perhaps you don't, although it's a statement that has placed customer need at the heart of communications for more than 70 years. 

What motivates your people

At the beginning of our careers, most of us work because we have to. We need to put roofs over our heads and food in our stomachs. For some of us, that need is more significant than others. In many instances, as time goes on and some level of personal financial stability ensues, we are privileged enough to need a driver beyond the paycheque to keep us motivated from one day to the next. In short, we need a sense of purpose.

You might say this is a question for individuals going through a midlife crisis to contemplate in the privacy of their therapist's office. However, there is a practical business requirement in considering this human need seriously, both in terms of appealing to clients and retaining staff and attracting future talent.

A new approach to purpose post-pandemic

During the pandemic, many of us have had the opportunity to consider where we work, how we work and what we do. Some have missed the camaraderie of the office. However, many have preferred operating without the stress of a daily commute or office politics. Equally, the upcoming GenZ is collectively less predisposed to the mantra of 'because I have to' than their predecessors. From a client perspective, customers are more tuned in and aware of a company's ethical credentials, social purpose and carbon footprint than ever before. 

Suppose one wants to take a much more holistic view. There is an argument to be said that somewhere between our desire for a healthier lifestyle, the privilege that goes with an ostensibly wealthy society and the global decline in religious faith, many of us need to find meaning in our daily actions beyond the material.

What does it mean for a business to provide purpose?

For some, making money is enough of a need in itself - providing a thrill and a goal and a challenge that plenty are satisfied with, at least for a time. Naturally, for most businesses, this is going to be a purpose if not the purpose. However, meaning doesn't have to be grandiose - it just has to be evident to whoever needs it. 

On one end of the spectrum, Patagonia is a brand that places clear social and environmental goals at the forefront of their business, inspiring both customers and employees:

"Build the best product.
Cause no unnecessary harm.
Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Others may define their purpose as a duty to the client. For example, Charlie Munger, Vice-Chair of Berkshire Hathaway, was recently quoted commenting on bitcoin, and in particular, Fintech unicorn, Robinhood, saying: 

"I think it's just god awful that something like that would draw investment from civilised men and decent citizens," he said. "It's deeply wrong. We don't want to make our money selling things that are bad for people."

Purpose starts with business leaders

Business leaders have been grappling with multiple challenges over the last year. One of which is inspiring teams to continue working under the threat of redundancies, perhaps lower pay than usual, a smaller team, and even taking on job roles that they are not used to while colleagues were on furlough. 

We spoke to one client in the leisure industry, required to switch from a sales model to a customer service model overnight as lockdown hit and the industry shut down. It necessitated staff from all departments taking on roles they had never done before. However, they did so because they had a business leader who had created a culture where people wanted to support her and her business's purpose. The team effort has carried them through Covid-19 and put them in a solid position to move forward where many other organisations have had to close.

As we look forward, businesses have a lot to be excited about and a lot to consider carefully. The idea that we can go back to the pre-pandemic days is unrealistic. Even if it looks similar on the surface, there has been a seismic shift built on a trend that was already amongst us. We know we can work differently; we realise we can survive and thrive differently. So, for the days when material value is not enough, what is your business doing to inspire individuals to choose you over someone else?

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