Why Purpose Matters

The average lifespan for a male in the United States is now about 80 years; things are even better if you are female and/or you live in Japan, but much worse if you live in Botswana or Angola. I tell you this because long before people die, they run out of steam.

Every now and then you meet a 75-year-old with a zest for life and a passion for others, but more often you meet folks tired by the drudgery of jobs that bored them, spouses that didn’t understand them, and kids who took them for granted.

Sorry — my intention is not to depress you. Instead, I simply want to draw a contrast between the average state of affairs and what most of us crave most of all: to have a purpose that matters.

Take a 75-year-old with weak knees and creaking joints, surround him or her with grateful and smiling faces, and you have a person who is thrilled to be alive.

Take a 23-year-old who last year others viewed as spoiled, entitled, and useless in the workplace. Add a purpose, and – voila! – you have a dynamo who works 24/7 with joy in her heart.

Here’s the rub: purpose has to have true meaning to the people involved. It can’t just be “let’s crush our sales goal” or “let’s make the boss look really good.” Your agenda, disguised as purpose, is still your agenda. It won’t fool anyone.

In the context I intend it, purpose implies a social good. It has to be larger than you or I. It has to rise above the income statement of your business. It must evoke fundamental human needs, such as longing and belonging. Think about building a series of schools, eradicating a deadly disease, or turning a burnt-out neighborhood into a true community.

Purpose can transform a generic brand into an AMAZING brand. It can motivate, inspire and invigorate your team. It can attract people from all around the world to stand behind your efforts.

Whole Foods carries the Method line of cleaning products, and praises its “vibrant formulas, irresistible fragrances and famously sleek and beautiful packaging.”  Recently the company decided to recycle plastic collected from the beaches of Hawaii, and use it in its packaging.

 “We realize that only a small amount of plastic will be taken out of the ocean to make these bottles,” explained Method co-founder Adam Lowry. “But we can have a big impact if we change people’s minds about their role in protecting our oceans.”

Most people don’t realize that there is now so much plastic debris in our oceans that the beaches of Hawaii are littered with the stuff. In this context, raising awareness is a meaningful purpose, since it drives home the sobering reality that even thousands of miles at sea, our trash is turning pristine nature into pitiful piles of litter.

Add purpose, and the same couple that wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping in anything less than a four star hotel will have the best week of their lives in sleeping bags on a crude wooden floor. If you don’t believe me, ask your friends about the events in their lives that have mattered most to them. Don’t settle for their first answers; dig deeper, and watch their eyes carefully. Human beings crave meaning.

Meaning matters. In fact, it is a potent brand strategy. If you recognize this, you can banish customer apathy. You can inject passion and energy into every corner of your firm’s relationships with not only its customers but also its employees.

And that is why purpose matters.