Atticus Winner: Purpose as Sin and Salvation
Eric Tsytsylinon 21 July, 2017 at 11:07
The following piece was awarded the 2016 Atticus Award in the Under-30 Essay Contest. The prompt was as follows:
It’s become more and more common for brands to champion a social purpose greater than their basic function. To take three prominent examples:
Apple: To empower creative exploration and self-expression.
Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
Dove: Helping women reconsider and redefine what beauty is.
What is your opinion of the commercial value of such an approach? And should all brands consider adopting it?
“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us”
Since its founding in 1946, the organization that bears this statement as its guiding purpose has had an enviable trajectory. It’s grown by at least 10% every year, from one location to nearly 2,000. On average, it generates more revenue from each of these locations than any of its competitors – and more total revenue than many whose real estate footprints are double or triple the size of its own. Its patrons and employees are some of the happiest you’ll find. And although some might liken the consumption of its product to a religious experience, it is neither a church nor a charity nor a cult.
The company? Chick-fil-A. Its creation? Perfectly crisp, tantalizingly moist fried chicken sandwiches. And in between their not-so-lightly-buttered buns rests all that is both powerful and problematic about the philosophy of putting ‘purpose over profit.’
That Chick-fil-A was born alongside clearly articulated ideals is undeniable: founder Truett Cathy’s Southern Baptist roots were (and continue to be) explicitly and implicitly reflected in the company’s operations, from the Sunday closure of its restaurants to the biblical notion of ‘servant leadership’ that underpins its approach to recruitment, training, and customer service. Nor can one deny Chick-fil-A’s astounding commercial performance – it is, by almost any measure, one of the most successful quick-service chains in the world.
But many have tried to demonstrate a causal link between these truths, and that’s where things get murky. Putting aside the slight hypocrisy of using the promise of profits to argue that their pursuit is misguided, the malleable, take-a-leap-of-faith-just-trust-me-it-works nature of purpose makes any attempt to scrutinize it futile. Does Airbnb burn with the fire of 30 Silicon Valley unicorns because of its aim to change society’s convictions about belonging or because it unearthed a large two-sided marketplace and uses clever accounting practices to essentially operate as a bank? Do people join Google to organize the world’s information or to catalogue their subsidized massages, daily lunch specials, and generous stock options? Is Chick-fil-A lapping the competition because of God’s glory or because it’s remained private, has a progressive franchising policy, and, heaven forbid, makes a tasty product for which people will pay a modest premium?
The postulated benefits of purpose are irresistible: the flexibility to enter and create new markets; the engagement and retention of top talent; sustainable growth rooted in enduring relevance. But proving its commercial value ultimately requires taking people’s word for it, and we know people – and marketers especially – are fickle creatures. On the one hand, we all seek higher meaning in our work. On the other, our necks are on the line for selling more shoes or soap or poultry. Rallying around the idea of purpose is an awfully convenient way of resolving that cognitive dissonance. This is a cynical view, I know. But so is the view that “brand purpose has to be the reason why somebody behind a till comes into work every day.” Last I checked, there were valuable skills to be learned and much brand value to be built (or eroded) from the interactions that take place behind a till. And if executives are (rightfully) questioning the relevance of certain jobs in an algorithmic world, the answer should be frank conversations and opportunities for re-training, not a lofty manifesto that masks an unpleasant reality. The teller is not a moron.
And lest you think that there can only be upside to implementing an organizational purpose – how much harm could some introspection and a few anthemic films really do? – think again. Allowed to run unbridled, a higher-order purpose can set impossible standards for corporate governance and distract from what really matters to a business and its stakeholders. Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Chipotle are perennially celebrated as purpose-driven companies, but as their recent brand-breaking scandals suggest, elevating one’s reason-for-being can make the fall from grace that much more painful.
And while the inward-facing nature of purpose can lead to valuable reflections about a company’s past and future, it can also insulate firms from immediate realities. As sales of Toyota’s Prius vehicles collapse and those of SUVs and pickup trucks soar, the appeal of Toyota’s vision for a sustainable society seems to have taken a backseat to cheap petrol. And for brands like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Hershey, the decision to define themselves as vehicles for joy and escapism – rather than as makers of sugary snacks – now has them all in an expensive M&A scramble to meet people’s desire for healthier options like water, milk, fruit, and nuts. In these cases and many others, purpose blinds us to simple product truths.
We like to think of purpose as some kind of transcendent management principle, but like any product, service, or business idea, its value ultimately depends on its recipients’ desire for it. When Unilever realigned its organization around sustainability (note that purpose can, but need not, manifest itself as CSR), it wasn’t an impulsive act of altruism or idealism. The decision was instead grounded in the recognition that, in many of the categories in which Unilever operates – from food and drink to home and personal care – people were becoming more conscious of products’ environmental footprints and the origins of their ingredients. Put simply by CMO Keith Weed: “We know that consumers want brands with purpose.”
For Weed, the decision to go all-in on purpose was like any good business decision: rooted in human insight, backed by sound strategy, and brought to life through meaningful supply chain and product innovation. The true end-game, then, is coherence: between what people want, what companies make, and how they communicate and behave. Sometimes it will indeed be a higher-order purpose that supplies this coherence. Sometimes it will be a perfectly crisp, made-to-order fried chicken sandwich. More likely than not it will be a bit of both. But rather than presuppose purpose as the be-all-and end-all, I’d put my money on a well-thought-out business strategy, a nimble insights function, and smart, valued people who can interpret, calibrate, execute, and lead.
This isn’t the romantic narrative that marketers want to hear, but as the average tenure of a CMO falls and the skepticism around their relevance in the boardroom grows, unsubstantiated romanticism must yield to the truth. And the truth is that while it’s easy to tell a post-rationalized story about Nike’s or Apple’s or Dove’s devotion to purpose, it’s much harder to replicate the robust organizational and strategic infrastructure that has enabled them to adapt, evolve, and grow over a period of many decades. One doesn’t transform from a manufacturer of sneakers into a developer of software because of some passionate hunch: the teams at Nike tinkered with and tested the possibilities and profitability of electronics and biometrics for nearly twenty years before finally launching the Nike+ ecosystem. And before you retort with a Steve Jobs or Henry Ford cliché, note that this more responsive, opportunistic interpretation of purpose only elevates the importance of innovation, creativity, and intuition. As data and even insights become commodities, it is the courage to act and the imagination to build upon them that will make a difference.
On closer inspection, even our friends at Chick-fil-A are not as pious as their purpose might suggest. In a 2009 interview, current CEO Dan T. Cathy shed light on his father’s original decision to close the company on Sundays:
“By the time Sunday came, he was just worn out. And Sunday was not a big trading day, anyway, at the time. So he was closed that first Sunday and we’ve been closed ever since. He figured if he didn’t like working on Sundays, that other people didn’t either.”
Regardless of whether Cathy was honoring God or his own self-interest, he ended up taking care of his people, who in turn took great care of their customers. And whether you call it purpose or empathy or market intelligence, understanding and serving people is irrefutably a winning strategy. “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out,” counsels Proverbs 20:5. For brands, too, it was ever thus.
 “How Chick-fil-A’s restaurants sell three times as much as KFC” – Business Insider, August 2015: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-chick-fil-a-is-dominating-fast-food-2015-8
 How Chick-fil-A created a culture that lasts” – Forbes, December 2015: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2015/12/08/how-chick-fil-a-created-a-culture-that-lasts/#7488670a5872
 “Brands struggle to sustain ‘purpose’ commitments” – Marketing Week, September 2016: https://www.marketingweek.com/2016/09/21/brand-struggle-sustain-purpose/
 “Low Gas Prices are Bad News for Prius Sales” – Fortune, September 2016: http://fortune.com/2016/09/06/prius-toyota-sales/
 “Hershey Says Profit and Sales Decline, Buys BarkTHINS Maker” – Wall Street Journal, April 2016: http://www.wsj.com/articles/hershey-says-profit-and-sales-decline-buys-barkthins-maker-1461673685
 “The Top 100 Companies for ‘brand purpose’” – Marketing Week, October 2015: https://www.marketingweek.com/2015/10/13/the-top-100-companies-for-brand-purpose/
 “The Nike Experiment: How the Shoe Giant Unleashed the Power of Personal Metrics” – Wired, June 2009: https://www.wired.com/2009/06/lbnp-nike/
 “Chick-fil-A Wins Customers…by Closing” – ABC News, September 2009: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/10Commandments/ten-commandments-sabbath-holy-chick-fila-closes-sundays/story?id=8570384