Can you risk being purposeless?

Clearing through old personal files chocking up the office, I found an article from December 1998, when I was featured in Marketing magazine as ‘Brand Manager of the Week’. Woo! Woo! It was of those experiences that felt pleasing for the ego, until you realised that it’s just part of the magazine’s content filling strategy. Can’t sell the space for advertising? Put in some filler. That was me. Fortunately, that isn’t the point. On re-reading the piece, I reflected on some of my answers from just over 15 years ago. Answers, which, I’m fairly confident in saying I’d give again today (well some of them, at least).

One question in particular was ‘Which brand do you most admire?’ My answer was a brand that is little known in the UK – Patagonia.   Patagonia is a high-end outdoor brand, sometimes mockingly called Patagucci. When asked the question, I remember not having to think of the answer. I had some Patagonia clothing items that were already years old and looking good. This was/is good kit but more than that. Don't buy This Jacket_fotorWhat appealed to me was that Patagonia had purpose.

Founded by Yvon Chouinard in 1973, Patagonia started as rock climbing business: making hardware: caribinas and pitons – the spikes that you hammer into the rock to secure your rope and maybe save your life if you peel.   Chouinard realised that in enjoying the outdoors he was damaging it. Later, he realised that the cotton in his clothes contained chemicals, like formaldehyde, which were injurious to the health of all concerned, manufacturers and wearers. The conundrum was how to have a business yet give back and be responsible. I’m not sure whether Patagonia have a purpose statement. They declare their purpose in everything they do. In their Ironclad Guarantee where they look to repair your clothes rather than you buying new; in their Common Threads Recycling Programme where you can bring in clothes to the store and they go back to be turned into new Patagonia clothes, a cradle-to-grave clothing philosophy. Chouinard also set up ‘1% for the Planet’ in 2002 – member companies give 1% of their turnover (turnover, note) to environmental causes. He followed this by setting up the whimsically named but seriously intended World Trout Initiative in 2005 – to save endangered fish species (he’s a mad keen fly fisher).   These are just a few of the proof points that mark Patagonia out as a purposed company.

I would argue it’s the most important think your brand or your company should have. It’s not some fashionable and fancy fly-by-night initiative. It’s essential. It makes decision making easier; it makes alignment easier; it promotes transparency; it reduces the reliance on chocolate teapot initiatives like employee opinion surveys. What’s central to purposed companies is values – values that translate into a commercial orientation.

Ken Grossman_fotorKen Grossman was a normal young adult, searching for what he wanted to do with his life who became frustrated at the homogeneity and blandness of commercially brewed American beer in the 1970s and 80s. Building a brewery from scrap components, initially in a garage, then a small industrial unit, he held the flame of brewing quality beer sacrosanct. His would be all malt beers (large scale brewers replaced malt with cheaper ‘adjuncts’ like rice or corn syrup); use only whole cone hops (not oils or pellets) – and lots of them and time, to mature the beer to full condition. He started Sierra Nevada Brewing Company with these product values and they remain true today: even though 30 years on, his company is one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S.A

And Howard Schultz’s account of the Starbucks turnaround is a fascinating story too. Starbucks has its own fair share of dissenters, yet aligning behind a purpose was at the heart of the turnaround. “To become an enduring, great company with one of the most recognised and respected brands in the world, known for inspiring and nurturing the human spirit”. You can argue that this is a bit of corporate speak: but the plans below it aren’t: be the undisputed authority on coffee; ignite the emotional attachment with our customers; be a leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact.   The purpose is the map that asks: is this activity right? Are we behaving in the right way? Should we do this or that?

If you’re not a company founder with direct control over the business, getting to a purpose you can all agree on, will all act on, won’t be easy. Yet the rewards are worth fighting for: alignment; faster decision making; attractiveness as an employer; employee inspiration. Whatever your business or organisation, whatever its size, in this age of transparency, getting a clear purpose isn’t a nice to do, it’s critical.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands, including company and brand purposing. To learn more, wing over an e mail to or call on +44 (0) 7885 408367.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( Twitter, caw us at @crowflieshigh. Or just send a well-purposed carrier pigeon.   © The Crow Flies, 2014

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