The role of purpose in digital (Hint: It's everything)
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Purpose is not new. It was first referenced in the 14th century, and even the ancient philosophers had a crack at defining the purpose of life: The pursuit of knowledge (Plato), or creating a plan for ‘living well’ (Aristotle). But Simon Sinek’s 2009 book, “Start With Why” thrust the implications of purpose into the forefront of business leadership attention with a very simple message: The difference between a good company and a great one isn’t what you do — or how — but why.
Company values, mission statements, and tracking a vision for the future are all intended to imbue a company’s employees, from the CEO down to the social media intern, with a raison d’etre. They are intended to unite a company, even if that company is a multinational behemoth with thousands of employees.
But what does purpose have to do with digital, specifically?
Well, in short, everything. True purpose has been a struggle for most companies, big or small. Leadership claims to be user-centric, or perhaps they claim that their people are their greatest assets… but when the chips are down, most companies work to serve their bottom line rather than driving impact for others (and this is only half of what’s needed for real purpose). Why? Because most companies do not have a well-articulated, lived purpose.
Mission? Sure. Vision? Maybe. But a true purpose? No.
But don’t take my word for it. Even BCG sees the role of purpose in digital:
“Digital technologies link people in multiple ways, giving employees and customers alike greater access to an organization. But without in-person interaction, the bond can seem insubstantial. Purpose enables digital interactions to be more meaningful by imbuing them with a sense of the shared values that create communities.”
~ Purpose with the Power to Transform Your Organization, BCG 2017
This was problematic enough before the digitization of experiences. Now, digitization has been exponentially accelerated because of the pandemic and the associated user demand for safety over mere efficiency (a true raw driver of behavior). This is even more of a challenge in the digital world because It is incredibly difficult to create connections when your users don’t actually connect with anyone. Digital prioritizes self-service, automation, and bots, with cost and efficiency being the drivers behind it all. The challenge for companies is not “digital”, however — It’s how to drive behavior within digital ecosystems. And when we talk about behavior, I mean that a clear purpose behind that desired user behavior is critical to making an authentic connection with your brand. After all, do you act without a reason? No. And neither do your customers, employees and partners.
When leaders shift their attention to behavior, and the purpose needed to drive those behaviors, something interesting happens — digital quickly shifts into an enabler of behavior. If we break down behavior into the three key components of knowledge (knowing what to do), motivation (wanting to do it), and capability (the ability to do it), we can see that digital plays a role in each.
Digital is a leading channel to provide the knowledge to users of what behaviors are expected of them. Most users are interacting with your brand online. In fact, even pre-Covid, 87% of retail shoppers did research online before a product purchase. Consumers of your brand will use your digital touchpoints to learn what you can do for them, and evaluate if the behavior you require is worth it — spending money, spending time, or spending expertise.
Digital also provides the capabilities through well-designed apps and web interfaces. Though much has been said about ensuring that this capability is made as seamless as possible (by us and others), underestimating the importance of capability has taken plenty of companies out at the knees in the digital era. And that leaves us with motivation — the most difficult driver of behavior. It’s here that purpose becomes most valuable. Your ability as a brand to motivate consumers sufficiently to do this spending is a direct result of your power to convey your purpose. Apple is a classic example: Throughout the aughts, their brand signified an aspirational cool that few others could achieve. Their purpose? “To empower creative exploration and self-expression.” Buying Apple’s products meant affirming an identity as a creative person with something to say, or contribute to the world.
Getting to purpose
Purpose consists of two pillars: contribution (your product or service) and impact (what your product or service enables others to do, or how it helps them achieve their jobs-to-be-done).
Most companies are quite good at articulating their contribution (Hint: It’s called marketing and we spent over three-quarters of a trillion dollars on it in 2021). Where companies fall flat is connecting what they do to an impact that matters at a deeper level. A digitally-enabled transaction is a great way to drive a better contribution, but does a digital transaction help me spend more time with my daughter? Does it help me become a better husband or son? Does it help me find my own purpose? No.
By establishing a clear, simple and impactful purpose, companies create a North Star: A guiding light to build anything that touches customer, employee and partner experiences. And now that the pandemic has proven that almost anything can be done digitally, a North Star is even more critical when users will only connect online.
Purpose does not provide a tactical, specific answer to how to build digital products and services, but it provides the guard rails to do so. When your digital product managers, marketers, and service agents all understand not just what they do, but the impact they want to provide, they can rally their efforts to shape that impact. The question “Does this drive the impact we want for our users so that they will be motivated to behave how we want?” is fundamental. But leaders cannot expect their product, service, or experience teams to drive impact when that impact isn’t clear to them.
Without impact, you can’t have purpose. And without purpose, you can’t deliver behavior-driving experiences. And if you aren’t driving behavior, what are you doing?
If you’d like to hear more about how to uncover, build and solidify your purpose through digital experiences, reach out to the Rangle team.