The Human Element in Core Purpose


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Core purpose: an obvious series of promise-charged words that multi-billion dollar companies stick on their About Us section of their website.

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^ This is what I used to think a core purpose was. My critical humor can be quick to make fun of vocabulary in advertising; “let’s circle back to synergize on this cause we need to storytell it with mad research ninja skills”. It took a Christmas present, a Slack message, and a Weight Watchers membership to realize core purpose was more than the buzzy theme of a marketing conference. Professional success requires a human driven core purpose.

A Christmas Present

Merry Christmas, I got you some homework!

For Christmas, my boss gave his team of strategists the Harvard Business Review’s book On Strategy. The catch was the team was to demonstrate the depth of strategy to our agency in lunch and learn fashion. I blindly opened a page and decided “core purpose” was my topic.

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Now think about how you learn new words from when you were four years old to now. A definition is a fine start, but you don’t really understand a concept, a word, an idiom until you see it in action. Without seeing how core purpose drives decisions, it is not possible to truly comprehend its significance.

A Slack Message

How does a dining room table change an entire company?

Arielle Cason, fellow strategist, sent a slack message of an article she really enjoyed reading. I thought I’d skim HBR’S Know Your Customer’s “Jobs to Be Done”but holy shit this article really rocked my world.

I know you read that article, like r e a l l y read it in depth and loved it and shared it. I’m only giving the summary for posterity’s sake, not because you didn’t read that article.

Quick notes:

  1. New luxury condos in Detroit were aimed at downsizers but despite healthy research & development and media spend, not enough people were moving into the units.
  2. Innovation consultant Bob Moesta interviewed those who had bought units and despite never mentioning the importance of a dining room, they repeatedly brought up the dining room table.
  3. Moesta realized the dining room table represented family – birthdays, holiday meals, homework stations. The real problem was that these condos weren’t a viable home yet.
  4. This company made bigger dining rooms, provided moving services, offered a sorting room, and gave storage space for all things that represented the dining room table.

“I went in thinking we were in the business of new-home construction,” he (Moesta) recalls. “But I realized we were in the business of moving lives.”

This case taught me the power of delivering innovative solutions by empathizing with humans, not just spending media on them.

Weight Watchers

Soon after I thoughtlessly popped a handful of M&M’s. Normally this is not worth remembering but I had started Weight Watchers. I went to log my minuscule harmless snack only to find out the minuscule harmless snack was ONE SIXTH of my daily calories.

giphy (3)My immediate reaction was regret; think of all the wine I could have had instead!

WINE. Now if I were doing a competitive analysis, I’d look into Godiva, Skittles, or any other snack. But none of the direct competitors were relevant to me when it came to what I wanted my treat to be.

M&M’s are in a business that is more than chocolate, more than candy, more than snacks. Malbec is in a business more than red wine, more than alcohol, more than beverage. In their greater intersection, Malbec and M&M’s are in the business of indulging the senses.

Seeing the bigger business opened up the limits of product category.

A Project’s Core Purpose

Core purpose extends beyond a business’s identity; a project’s core purpose adds significance to the most tedious of tasks.

I was working on product research for a financial institution. The client ask was to uncover consumer sentiment around health savings accounts through social listening. Don’t be shocked when I tell you it wasn’t the sexiest project. Part of my research required to learn all the things HSA stood for. It turns out that the three letter acronym encompasses “Hampshire special ale”, “hill start assist”, “high school assessment”, and much much more. I got caught up in this chore failing to see the significance of what I was doing.

Why did I care about other people’s health savings? Because I can help someone be prepared for their future and ease their anxiety of the crucial intersection between health and personal savings.

Uncovering the project’s core purpose made researching the different HSA acronyms much more meaningful. Everyone who touched the project shared this connection of knowing we were doing something important. It enhanced whatever the seemingly small duty was to everyone’s role; to the copywriter finding the right CTA or the project manager planning the project’s scope, we were all preparing people for their future.

The Human Element

Now look at the expected product category and then what it is when you see its core purpose.

construction company -> moving lives

chocolate snack and wine -> indulging the senses

health savings accounts -> preparing for the future

In all of these mentioned instances, you see the incorporation of “the human element”.  Look at how a business, a product, or a project helps human lives be better and you see core purpose. 

We can argue about what success in regards to work means, what KPI’s to measure, and what numbers matter. Where I see long-lasting success in regards to business and work is when there is a deep respect for why what someone does matters, and that’s more than being best in product or industry category. Observing and responding to unique nature of the human condition is ultimately our role in advertising; I guess you could say that’s our core purpose.

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