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essentials | Chapter 5

Shared Purpose

The Hollywood model of storytelling doesn’t apply well to business in a digital age. We need a new kind of narrative that engages audiences as co-creators. The foundation of this new kind of narrative is Shared Purpose.

The most powerful purpose is shared

Having a purpose-driven company is not enough. Purpose needs to be shared.

Companies are turning to purpose as a way to engage consumers and employees. But it’s hard enough to find purpose as an individual, let alone an entire company. So what’s a leader to do?

The first step is to recognize that there are different kinds of purpose. Sometimes purpose is about values — who you are and what you stand for. Other times it is about value — what you do and how it benefits others.

The ultimate goal would seem to align your values and value, so that what you do reflects who you are, what you stand for guides what you make, and your value to the community enhances your value to customers and shareholders.

This goal of aligning values and value is espoused by many eminent business leaders. It’s a core tenet in the field of corporate social responsibility.

But in the Digital Age, this kind of purpose isn’t enough. The problem comes down to a simple preposition. Most leaders think of purpose as a purpose FOR. But what is needed is a purpose WITH.

Customers are no longer just consumers; they’re co-creators. They aren’t just passive members of an audience; they are active members of a community. They want to be a part of something: to belong, to influence, to engage.

It’s not enough that they feel good about your purpose. They want it to be their purpose too. They don’t want to be at the other end of your purpose. They want to be right there in it with you.

Purpose needs to be shared.

Three types of purpose

Where Purpose TO is about transaction and Purpose FOR is about contribution, Purpose WITH is about co-creation.

In the Shift Guidebook on Narrative, we talk about why the Hollywood model of storytelling doesn’t apply well to Digital Age business, and why we need a new kind of narrative that engages audiences as co-creators.

The foundation of this new kind of narrative is Shared Purpose.

Purpose has become a popular concept recently. But there are different kinds of purpose. Most companies’ narratives only address the first kind. A few address the second. The most powerful address all three.

Purpose TO is what you deliver to your stakeholders. It is the value you create by delivering your offering.

Most marketing and communications is focused on this level of purpose and why a person should transact with the company as a customer, employee, partner or investor.

Purpose FOR is what you contribute to the wider community. It is not just what you sell, but why you sell it. It is your values as much as your value.

This includes corporate social responsibility but extends into the broader brand position in the marketplace.

Purpose WITH is what you create with others. It is a shared goal to which everyone contributes. It is not just what you sell TO or do FOR others, but what everyone can do.

The T-shirt test

To clarify purpose TO vs. FOR, ask: “What goes on the T-shirt?”

A good test of Purpose TO vs. Purpose FOR is whether something would make sense to put on a T-shirt.

  • Dunkin’ Donuts has a mission to "serve fresh, delicious coffee" (Purpose TO). Starbucks has a mission to "inspire the human spirit" (Purpose FOR).
  • Stop&Shop has a mission to "offer safe, wholesome, quality guaranteed products in clean, modern and attractive stores" (Purpose TO). Whole Foods has a motto of "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet" (Purpose FOR).

Purpose FOR makes for a much better T-shirt than Purpose TO.

But the third kind of  purpose, Purpose WITH, generates the most powerful narrative.

Who wears the T-shirt?

“Classes for Confidence” held by Sephora—a Beauty Together: Purpose WITH

The test for Purpose WITH is who wants to wear the T-shirt. If only your employees wear the shirt, then it is Purpose FOR. If your customers are co-creators in the mission—if they also want to wear the shirt—then you have a truly Shared Purpose: a Purpose WITH.

The makeup retailer Sephora is a good example of how a company can evolve its purpose.

  • In the beginning, Sephora had a mission to be “The Beauty Authority" (Purpose TO).
  • Then it changed its mission to lead a movement for "Transforming Beauty" (Purpose FOR).
  • Most recently, it has evolved its mission to "Beauty Together" (Purpose WITH).

A T-shirt that says “Beauty Together” is something you can imagine many people wearing, regardless of whether they work for—or shop at—Sephora.

Don’t hoard your purpose

Be sure your Purpose WITH is truly shared.

Many companies known for their values and purpose do not actually have a Purpose WITH. They tend to hoard their purpose, keeping them stuck at a Purpose FOR.

Starbucks, for example, has a purpose to “inspire the human spirit,” but Starbucks does little to help customers inspire the human spirit in each other. You might say that only the baristas “wear the shirt.”

By contrast, Nike’s “Just Do It” motto is easy for anyone to get behind. Being unstoppable in achieving your goals is a sentiment that extends beyond Nike, athletes, and sports in general. Not only can anyone wear the T-shirt, lots of people worldwide already do.

Analyze your mission statement

To identify your Shared Purpose, start by analyzing your mission statement. Is it something that might belong on a T-shirt? Would someone hearing it be glad that you are at work on that problem? If it’s not quite ready for that, what would you put on your company’s T-shirt?

Once you have something, think about who wants to wear that shirt. Would your customers wear it? Would your partners?

One cautionary note: Don’t make it something too philanthropic. You want to tie it back to your business. It’s often a simple elevation. For one hospital system, it was a shift from “delivering care” to “being healthy.”


Shared Purpose

In this simple ad-lib, the blanks represent what would go on your Shared Purpose T-shirt. For example, Sephora might say, “With our customers, we are creating more Beauty Together in the world.”

Now, try completing either or both of the sentences:

“With our customers, we are creating more [noun] in the world.”

Or try it with a verb:

“With our customers, we [verb], which makes the world a better place.”


Having a purpose-driven company is not enough. Purpose needs to be shared.

  • Where Purpose To is about transaction and Purpose For is about contribution, Purpose With is about co-creation.
  • To clarify Purpose To vs. For, ask: who wears the T-shirt?
  • Don’t hoard your purpose: Be sure your Purpose With is truly shared.

Go deeper

Read "Find Your Shared Purpose" by Mark Bonchek

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