For my second blog reflecting on the tech events I attended towards the end of 2018, I’d like to talk about purpose. Purpose feeds into everything: strategy, culture, branding, differentiation, messaging, go-to-market, you name it. The anecdotes and observations from various events match perfectly what I’ve seen in my own career and what we’ve seen at Sunfish working with numerous clients on purpose development projects. But first, an anecdote of my own.
Six Degrees Group Rebrand
In 2015, I was running a major rebrand at Six Degrees. As part of that, we had a large workshop where, amongst other materials, we had big A3 black-and-white printouts of the home pages of the websites of our major competitors (who shall remain nameless!). It was immediately obvious that they were beyond “me too” in approach. None had any clear and coherent sense of purpose, none led with customers or business outcomes, and all had a similar product-led portfolio messaging (cloud, colo, network, unified comms, etc).
I remarked at the time that, because they were in B&W, you could cut out the logos from the top-left corner, move them around, and nobody would be able to tell the difference. I’ve noticed the same in a whole host of different tech sub-industries. This is a major failing – if you don’t understand your purpose and how you are different to your competitors, how can your customers, prospects and potential employees?
Traditional Tech Firms and Broad Portfolios
The problem I noticed then is the same issue that Sunfish runs into all the time. Typically, companies we see with a fuzzy sense of purpose fall into one or both of two camps:
- They’re a long-established, traditional IT provider
- They have a broad portfolio (not necessarily tech)
The first of these is very common in IT companies that are 10+ years old. They may have successfully transitioned from on-prem IT and telecoms infrastructure to cloud-based solutions. Those services may be essential to their customers. But ultimately, they are utility-level, everybody-has-them, products that no more differentiate them than their AC vendor or electricity provider. For most people, the phone or PC on their desk doesn’t differentiate them any more than the desk itself does. If that’s your reality, you need to develop purpose and engineer in some differentiation – whether that’s know-how, approach, people or just looking, acting and feeling different as a brand.
For the second issue, once any company (tech or otherwise) has three or more distinct product/service areas, it becomes difficult to see a coherent purpose. Instinctively, accidentally, you start thinking in portfolio silos. Management fails to recognise the importance of organising principles and galvanising ideas – common ties that turn individuals into teams and teams into companies. In this situation, you need to think of a higher purpose that binds your portfolio elements together – something that resonates with your target audience.
Start-ups, Software and SaaS Providers
By contrast, companies who are start-ups or scale-ups, especially from the SaaS space, have a very clear sense of purpose. Almost by definition, they do one thing, have a one-product portfolio, so there’s no confusion at all. If you hear their leaders speak publicly, they can describe what they do in a snappy soundbite. Whether it’s “accounting for small businesses”, “parent payment solutions for schools” or “fulfilment software for ecommerce companies”, there’s no mistaking what they do.
Likewise, if you go to their websites, their purpose is immediately clear, above the fold, so the reader knows they are in the right place. I once heard a start-up US firm described as being “Airbnb for cars” and I knew immediately what they did for a living. That’s clarity of purpose. More established businesses need to think more like a start-up, more like a SaaS provider, and establish why they exist.
In Conclusion: Why Does Purpose Matter?
I could go on, at length, on this point. But I won’t. As well as what I said in the opening paragraph, it’s about the intangibles. It’s about the emotional response we can’t help having towards both people and companies. And that matters because customers and prospects are instinctively looking for differentiators – reasons to choose you not your competition – things that make you stand out.
This is essential for the user journey online – as part of the overall customer acquisition journey – if your purpose is clear and there’s blue water between you and your competition, you end up on more shortlists, develop more prospects, and have more of the right sort of people knocking at your door wanting to work for you.