Purpose ≠ Sustainability

Delara Saleh Ebrahimi

In the past week, there’s been quite a buzz around Unilever’s new CEO Hein Schumacher emphasising that Unilever “will stop force-fitting purpose to our brands”, stating that for some brands, the concept of purpose is simply not relevant. While I agree that a purpose statement is appropriate only when it’s authentic and your brand is truly purpose-driven, there seems to be a misconception here that purpose equals sustainability. That is not the case. Your “high why”, i.e. your reason for existing, doesn’t always have to be about changing the world. Instead, perhaps you need to accept – and embrace – that your reason for being simply is about bringing value to your customers.

The same goes for the role of the purpose in attracting talent. While Schumacher did not dismiss the concept of purpose completely, stating that the focus on delivering on purpose “inspires many people to join and stay with Unilever”, he goes on to say that “for some brands, it simply won’t be relevant and that’s okay”. Perhaps that’s true for Hellmann’s mayonnaise, but again, the important thing to remember is that purpose doesn’t necessarily mean sustainability. Customers and employees may not find it relevant for a brand of mayonnaise to claim to save the world. Such in-authentic claims may even be detrimental both to the relational and the transactional attractiveness of a brand. Instead, maybe we want to join on the journey of a company or brand just because it’s more fun? Maybe it’s innovative? Maybe it’s something else.

What everyone seems to agree on is that the purpose should state the high why – i.e. the brand’s reason for existing. But it also needs to be in sync with the why buy – meaning why customers should buy your products and buy into your brand – and why employees should buy into your organization and be part of your journey. Instead of shoehorning in sustainability and risk greenwashing, try to be self-aware and honest as to why you exist.

It’s time to stop using the purpose definition as your take on sustainability, and instead reflect on whether your brand is purpose-driven in the first place. And if it is – what is your authentic and true purpose?

If you want to discuss your purpose definitions or other value-driving tools and statements, don’t hesitate to contact Grow!

Delara Saleh Ebrahimi
Director Brand Strategy

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