Everybody is talking about ‘purpose’ at the moment. Simon Sinek with his mantra, “People don’t buy what they do, they buy WHY you do it,” is probably the best known of its advocates, but he isn’t alone. Jim Stengel in his book Grow unveiled analysis that showed that America’s fastest growing companies have a clear focus on customer purpose. Then there are Joey Reiman, Bernadette Jiwa and others.
And I’m not about to disagree with any of them. There is no doubt that purpose is powerful – if you mean it. But many are bandwagonning. (And yes, of course I am allowed to make up verbs).
Recently I went to the cinema to watch Denial. I squeezed into the row past a late middle-aged couple. I sat immediately to the left of the male just as the ads started. It was the first time I had seen the new Natwest ad. It’s striking. And yet, as I watched it I caught myself becoming cynical as it bounced from one aspirational scenario to another. It didn’t seem to me that Natwest should really be taking credit for all of the slow motion happiness on show. Perhaps that’s just me, I thought, as I took another sip from my coffee. But when the ad finished – with a smiling Natwest employee in centre screen – the man to my right turned to his wife and humphed. ‘How much have they just been fined?’ he said. ‘Was it £40 million?’
Natwest haven’t been fined recently, as far as I can tell. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that people are not impressed by promises. A favourite quote seems apposite here: ‘If you change your values when times are hard then they are really just hobbies,’ said Jon Stewart. If Natwest and all of the other companies that claim to care about their customers want us to believe they care about us, they should show that they mean it. That means making policy decisions that favour their customer’s interests, even if it runs counter to their own immediate interests. The masters of the art of rhetoric have long known that to establish credibility (Ethos) we must be seen to act in a manner that favours our audience, rather than ourselves.
I’m not saying that Natwest is anymore at fault than any other corporation in this respect. Natwest are my bank. They are okay. But they haven’t persuaded me that they will go the extra mile to improve my life. They haven’t convinced me that their ‘purpose’ is to serve society.