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Can you have a purpose without trust?

Tim Williams

They say you should never meet your heroes.


That way you will never be disappointed in them.

We’ve all heard stories about celebrities who cultivate an image of being ‘of the people’ and yet manage to cause a 10 year-old child to burst into tears by refusing to give an autograph because they are ‘far too busy’.


Conversely, all too often we rush to judgment based on what we expect someone to be like, only to be pleasantly surprised when we meet them in the flesh. A colleague once ran into David Beckham whilst walking the dog. As he passed, he tentatively asked if he could take a photo for his football-mad son (well, that’s his story…). Expecting at best to be glared at and ignored, and at worst to be hauled away by a bodyguard hiding in a nearby bush, he was astonished when not only did David agree to the request but turned out to be a genuinely nice, down-to-earth bloke.

Be genuine and your purpose will follow

The key word in that story is genuinely and it holds an important lesson for brands struggling with the whole question of what is their purpose beyond making money? Do they even need one? If so, can they credibly claim to own it? And what does it matter to their customers, employees and society generally?


It would be a brave CEO indeed who today would wholeheartedly agree with Milton Friedman’s (in)famous argument made 50 years ago that the only responsibility of a business is to deliver profits to its shareholders.


To be fair to Friedman, he was not arguing that people shouldn’t engage in what we would now call CSR-type activities, rather that these are more properly undertaken by individuals. In short, people make moral choices about how to spend their time and money but corporations are essentially amoral.


But, in today’s climate this viewpoint sits badly. ‘Stakeholder capitalism’ is a more fashionable school of thought which broadly argues not only that a business has a wider set of responsibilities to all its stakeholders including wider society (to pay taxes, not pollute, provide employment etc.), but that there’s also a strong commercial argument for doing so. Some would argue that making a profit first is necessary to be able to go beyond these obligations and promote a wider good. Others, hold to the more intriguing viewpoint that a business can ‘do well by doing good’ - that commercial success follows as a result of actively pursuing a higher purpose.


Not the least of the arguments for the latter view is that the best employees and customers will gravitate towards brands who are not just avoiding harm but actively promoting good and abandon those considered not to be behaving in the right ways.


It’s easy to get tied up in knots when talking about a brand’s purpose and this is not the place to debate the business case for CSR, or for a brand hitching itself to a particular cause. What is certain is that for a variety of reasons, businesses today have no choice when it comes to mitigating any  potential harm from their activities and, rightly or wrongly, are coming under increasing pressure to take a proactive stance on social and environmental issues - to be associated with a purpose. But, deciding you need a purpose simply because every one else has one is the worst of all possible worlds - it has to be congruent with your stakeholders and the experience they expect.



Deciding you need a purpose just because everyone else has one is the worst of all possible worlds - it has to be congruent with your customers and the experience they expect

We’d like to widen the discussion and open up a debate on the nature of the relationship between purpose, stakeholder engagement - and trust. Looked at in this way, some interesting questions arise:

  • If profit is not considered the primary purpose of a business in 2021, what is?

  • Who determines what that purpose should be?

  • How should a purpose be articulated?

  • What makes a purpose credible for a brand?

  • Do customers, employees and shareholders really change their behaviour in response to a brand’s stated purpose?

  • Even amongst a brand’s best customers, how many are loyal because they feel an affinity with the brand’s purpose, or is it due to more prosaic reasons?

  • How many loyal customers even know what their favourite brand’s purpose is?

  • Do employees identify primarily with their employer’s brand values or with their role and immediate team?

  • Can a purpose be purely aspirational or does need to be tangible and achievable?

  • Does having a purpose make customers more tolerant when a brand makes mistakes - or does it serve to amplify the harm?

  • What might prevent a brand from achieving its purpose?

Each of these could easily be the subject of a separate article, but we feel the last question deserves special attention today because it highlights the importance of trust - and brings us back to the dangers of meeting our heroes.


When you engage with a brand espousing a cause you feel reflects your own values and interests you’re likely to feel something akin to what behavioural economists call the ‘endowment effect’. This basically means we feel a greater emotional attachment to it - a sense of ownership - and tend to view it through rosier-tinted spectacles than we would otherwise. We’re telling ourselves that this brand is a reflection of who we are - and allows us to signal that fact to others. Therefore (in theory at least) we’re less likely to switch to a competitor.


For a brand this is great; it sounds like the secret sauce for creating loyalty. But there’s a catch: what if our hero brand does something to erode our trust - not in the integrity of their wider purpose but in the more mundane day-to-day delivery of their brand promise?


Imagine you’ve just bought a not inexpensive ski jacket from a brand whose environmental credentials you firmly support. If, when you get it home you discover a tear you will no doubt feel very disappointed but will probably cut them some slack because this has never happened before, and after all “this brand is for people like me”.


But what happens next is key.


If you’re able to contact the brand easily and they promise to send a (green) courier around the next day with a no-hassle replacement you’ll be delighted and will probably bore all your friends with the story about how fantastic the brand is (remember, it’s a reflection of you after all.)


If, on the other hand, it’s not easy to find a number or email for customer service, they put you on hold for 10 minutes and make you jump through a variety of hoops before finally relenting and agreeing to let you queue up in the Post Office for an hour in order to send it back - it’s fair to say that you might now be reconsidering how you feel about your hero.


Trust can be created or destroyed at both a transactional and emotional level. The former basically relates to how easy we make it to be a customer: remove friction and loyalty becomes a habit, whereas a series of seemingly small niggles can add up and undermine confidence. The erosion of trust on an emotional level is arguably more dangerous. This is especially the case if the brand’s purpose projects a caring image but the customer’s experience leaves them feeling ‘yes, but they don’t care about me’.


This is why we are far more likely to forgive Ryanair than BA - they’re not claiming to be the world’s favourite airline.


Similarly, an employee can become increasingly dis-engaged if they sense a disconnect between the public face of their employer and their experience on the ground. I encountered a great example of this when I interviewed a long-standing store employee of a major retail chain. When talking about the board’s desire to become a ‘customer champion’ she replied  ‘That’s all very well, but in my experience Head Office just gets in the way of me doing job: helping customers’.


So, having a purpose is great but it can be a two-edged sword if there is any suggestion that it’s incongruent with the every-day lived experience of your customers and employees.

Trust without a purpose is a wasted opportunity, a purpose without trust will never be achieved

If you’re really serious about your purpose you will first need to win and keep the trust of your customers and employees. We would argue that having a purpose is great but it’s not enough. A brand that has the trust of its key stakeholders has a far great chance of maybe even achieving its stated purpose.


Whilst trust without a purpose is a wasted opportunity, a purpose without trust will never be achieved.

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