Joseph Chaney | January 15th, 2021

Sometimes it takes a crisis to put things in perspective and spur a renewed focus on one’s purpose. The threat of imminent doom has a funny way of making previous concerns – say, a secret jealousy of a friend’s new high-paying job – seem painfully petty. On the flipside, what we once took for granted – perhaps our family or our personal health – is suddenly cherished and prioritised.

I know I’m not the only one who has woken up suddenly in the middle of the night in recent months and wondered: What, exactly, is the purpose of this life? Is mere survival the only goal?

And so, just as individuals are reevaluating their priorities in the COVID-19 era, so must companies – which, at root, are basically a collection of individuals serving a common purpose. Of course, defining that purpose is the tricky part; and remaining committed to said purpose over the long term is even trickier.

To be sure, consultants of many stripes have bandied about the idea of purpose-driven enterprises for a long time. But let’s be brutally honest, shall we? In normal times, it’s one of those ideas that sounds attractive on paper but is often lost in the relentless hustle required to run a successful business. More pressing concerns such as revenue generation and cost management inevitably claim the lion’s share of attention on a day-to-day basis.

Even so, COVID-19 just might be the catalyst to change that scenario for good – and such a change would piggyback on a more general push toward sustainable business in recent years. Environmental, social and governance standards (ESG), for example, are part of that push, forcing companies to reflect and ask themselves: Do our operations in some way transcend raw self-interest and serve the common good?

Purpose-driven marketing and communications exist in a parallel realm with ESG and require marketers to ask themselves an equally painful set of questions: What exactly are we selling – and even more importantly, why are we even selling it?

What am I getting at? Well, at N/N we see some marketers struggle to define their purpose in the campaigns they produce. Some marketers know they are tasked with promoting their company and its agenda, but don’t know why on a deep, visceral level (only that it is required of their job). In the pre-COVID world, this disconnectedness from their employer’s overarching purpose was in many ways understandable, given that meditating on such concerns is not typically part of the workday grind. In fact, such reflection is often discouraged – seen as a distraction, a time-wasting indulgence inhibiting the team from achieving KPI targets.

On that basis, I thought it’d be helpful to share three tips that will help you remain focused on your purpose in the campaigns you produce for this new, dare I say ‘mindful,’ COVID-era.

Organisation structure: Position marketing as a strategic function (rather than a cost centre)
This is a tough one, if only because the Board and the C-Suite often decide the position of marketing in an organisation and treat it accordingly. The sad fact is that many companies, especially those in the B2B space, undervalue marketing – and see it as a “nice to have.” Even so, it’s imperative that the CMO actively fights for a seat at the executive table and ensures that the marketing department is seen as key player in the development of corporate strategy – much more than a group of product brochure publishers who add costs to the company’s wage bill. The closer you are to your company’s strategic decisions, the more closely your work will reflect the company’s overarching reason for existence.

Campaign planning: Define your value proposition before you begin a campaign
It is crucial that you define what we at N/N refer to as your value proposition at the beginning of each campaign. That is the coat-hanger that the rest of your campaign hangs upon. As my N/N colleague Jonathan Hopfner previously wrote in these pages, the value proposition “touches on big ideas that lend themselves to repeated exploration as you publish and communicate over time.” In other words, your campaign’s value proposition is a succinct summary of your overarching purpose for publishing a particular campaign in the first place. After all, without a meaningful raison d'etre, what’s the point of doing all of this hard marketing work?

Campaign execution: Resist the temptation to water down your campaigns
And finally, resist all attempts to self-censor and deviate from your original purpose during the campaign’s execution stage. There are myriad reasons why the pressure to self-censor rears its ugly head. Often the pressure comes from the C-Suite, when a group of senior executives decide that publishing forceful opinions is too risky – reducing what was once a robust and edgy campaign to a series of bland statements that offend no one, but also fail to inspire. Or sometimes timid marketers actively engage in self-censorship as a form of self-preservation, second-guessing their decisions and anticipating what their bosses might think before the proverbial hammer comes down. Either way, the outcome is the same: flat, lifeless campaigns that please no readers, and generate few, if any, meaningful returns.

In summary, if – for example – your organisation’s purpose is to give investors the information they need to make sound investment decisions in emerging markets, then you’d better mention the good (i.e., opportunities such as rising markets) and the bad (i.e., serious risks such as corporate corruption or untrustworthy credit ratings) in your campaigns – otherwise you are out of sync with your purpose and your work will lack credibility.

It goes without saying that it’d be much preferred if COVID-19 never happened. But now that the train has left the station, marketers might as well emerge from the crisis with a renewed sense of purpose in the work that we do.

Survival – and even financial success – are no longer good enough. Purpose is the new currency.

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