Has purpose lost its meaning?

Purpose is probably the most used word in business the past few years. It might very well also be the most ‘misused’ word.

When we talk about purpose today, it seems entrepreneurs and business leaders are only allowed or accepted to run a business if they are good for the planet. I think there’s no human being who doesn’t want a better world (if not, they’re probably not worried about purpose either).

In an ideal world, creating a better world is or should be the default option and be an integrated part of any business (we’re definitely not there yet).

Synonym for sustainability

What we cannot expect is that any company’s positioning is built around saving the world: it just doesn’t work that way in every business.

Yet, it seems purpose has more or less become synonym for saving the world or creating a better world. A synonym for sustainability. My guess: because it coincided with the sustainability discussion and people started to link the two?

“Purpose has more or less become synonym for saving the world or creating a better world. A synonym for sustainability”

But is purpose about saving the world?

No. At least, not by definition. The definition of purpose is your company (or life) goal, a point in the future you’re determined to achieve. Or as I always discuss with companies: knowing where your company is heading to in the long term and what the impact and added value is you want to deliver (in your own and/or other businesses’/people’s lives).

(On a side note: in my discussions with organizations we often say to either define a vision or a purpose statement. Not both. In the core they have the same meaning: it’s about the long-term impact you want to make. Choosing between vision or purpose then just means rephrasing the sentence construction somewhat.)

My point is:

1. Companies need a purpose (or vision)

2. Purpose is not synonym for creating a better world

We should and cannot expect from every company to position themselves as a purpose-driven business meaning they are saving the world. Having a clear purpose or vision is crucial, but that does not always have to imply ‘saving the world’.

Customers often have other primary reasons to buy

Why? Because in some (or even many) countries, sectors and businesses it (still) doesn’t work that way; it’s not the primary reason to buy or base buying decisions on.

What happens is that purpose — especially in the West — becomes a forced statement for companies showing how much they’re working on creating a better world. This is far from authentic. And if there’s one thing that sells nowadays, it’s authenticity.

“This is the reason many companies have trouble marketing their ‘purpose-proposition’. It has become a hollow phrase for many”

This is the reason many companies have trouble marketing their ‘purpose-proposition’. It’s a hollow phrase for customers if there’s not a good story on an impactful sustainability strategy or how they are doing their bit for a better world.


It’s not authentic and not reliable. It might even be counterproductive. And sometimes, when there is a story, it’s not connected to how clients or customers buy.

Price and other USPs will still be major buying reasons for many products and services. Especially in times of crisis with companies shifting to survival mode, purpose — depending on the sector — might be pushed a bit more to the background.

“With companies shifting to survival mode, purpose might be pushed a bit more to the background”

A rental bike shop in Amsterdam probably primarily cares about offering people an reliable and affordable means of transport. And that’s exactly what consumers are looking for. Clients of a producer of bulldozers want a machine that is able to carry a lot of sand at once, can be written off in 15 years and is of outstanding quality.

There’s a development though. A better world is finally becoming more and more part of the buying decision in more sectors and businesses, because of increasing global consumer consciousness. But even then, it will not very soon be the primary reason for many products and services.

Be as sustainable as you possibly can. Above all, be honest and open in your positioning about what you have to offer. That probably sells best in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

More at www.diederikheinink.com



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Diederik Heinink

Diederik Heinink


Founder East | CMO | Strategy Director | Author ‘The Era of the Who’ — Leadership in a revolutionary era | Speaker | Podcast host & Columnist Business Insider.