OPINION: How to write a purpose statement in a recession

Chris West


Verbal Identity

“Long term”, ”Wealth”, “Community”, “Responsible”… these aren’t the first words that come to mind when you’re preparing your marketing strategy for the possibility of a recession.

But it was the last financial shock, in 2008, which promoted the importance of a Purpose Statement and brought those words into financial services firms’ communications.

At that time, the chant of the MBA classes of the ‘90s (“The purpose of a company is to make money for its shareholders”) had become an embarrassed mumble and ‘homo economicus’ was declared DOA: companies realised they had a responsibility beyond shareholders, and employees weren’t all motivated by selfish accumulation.

And with more dark clouds on the horizon, now feels to many Chief Marketing Officers like the right time to consider how a clearly expressed Purpose Statement could help their business navigate what’s ahead.

But a quick review of the language of Purpose Statements from the last 4 or 5 years reveals there’s been a kind of group-think going on, as different firms’ Purpose Statements seemed to just shuffle around the same 6 or 7 words. And as they’ve done that, their meaning and impact has been lost.

So, how do you write a meaningful Purpose Statement that is authentic and differentiating but doesn’t stray too far from the realities of real life?


The importance of process

The first tip is to consider carefully how involved those members of the MBA class of the late 90s will be: will they be consulted or given full authorial control? The MBAs are not wrong in their thinking about the importance of profit generation. But it’s clearly not the whole story and their processes are often reductive – using a strictly linear methodology to strip away anything that’s not provable. And when there’s an absence of hard proof, then there’s the temptation to look over your shoulder at what everyone else has done.

Although a firm such as Verbal Identity is considered a language agency, our critical first step is always one of good project management. We recommend reaching agreement with everyone in the decision-making community on what kind of process you’ll be using. Spend time to show how internal and external stakeholders are driven by biases and fuzzy logic and that the best process for creating a Purpose Statement isn’t the linear-reductive or even the classic wondering-creative. Instead, it’s Design Thinking: which is highly empathetic (important since this is about people) and iterative (also useful as we enter a period of changing certainties).

In particular we’ve seen how a language-based version of Design Thinking called “LiLo” (Language-In, Language-Out) can produce outcomes which are deeply rooted in the truth of an organisation.

Like classical Design Thinking, LiLo begins with an investigation of stakeholders’ motivations. But this first step is often where the classical Design Thinking process fails, because language is never just the meaning of whatever words were spoken in interviews or written in email surveys. Instead, strategists using linguistic frameworks of metaphor, transitivity and narrative are able to reveal the deepest motivations of the interviewees.

The advantage of being trained in statistical linguistics and language-assessment is that the answers are much more robustly interpreted (which often brings the final, reluctant doubters onboard).

And this robust assessment also means that the next stage, of Defining the Brief, becomes aligned and rapid.

Ideation and Prototyping steps follow. With the LiLo version of Design Thinking, it’s not ‘monkeys and typewriters’ or meandering ‘brainstorming’ sessions but a carefully controlled process which uses the creativity and editing practices used in advertising, film and theatre.

In the testing phase, quick and productive feedback is important. But unlike the classical creative process, LiLo and its linguistic approach allows for a much more nuanced interpretation of people’s reactions.


Design thinking

The heart of Design Thinking is that it’s not linear, but is instead a continuous loop, so again, deep empathy means the testing is a clearer guide to what needs to change.

Design Thinking is well respected for its ability to produce unusually authentic and differentiated creative outcomes. And with clear, statistical evidence backing recommendations to the Board, the linguistics-driven approach of LiLo often produces faster results – although that’s not the most important characteristic.

A language-based approach digs under the temptation to say whatever seems right, and instead it helps create a Purpose Statement which has moved beyond the generalities into something which is truly authentic and specific to the motivations of the leaders and stakeholders. When the world enters a period of uncertainty, having a proven method of creating a Purpose Statement that will actually motivate people is certainly a good thing.

Chris West is the Founder of Verbal Identity, the copywriting and tone of voice agency. He is also a guest lecturer at business schools around the world and contributed to the Open University program on linguistics in business.

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