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The first rule of purpose: Crimson Tide, Project Apollo,
and the making of myths

The first rule of purpose: Crimson Tide, Project Apollo, <br>and the making of myths

By David Gutting
SVP | Director of Strategic Projects

Nick Saban, the head football coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, has the demeanor and drive of a film noir detective—silent, driven, zero tolerance for nonsense, and a relentless drive to prevail.

If you want to understand the dynamics of purpose, study him. 

Except he won’t tell you much. That’s the point of course. His winning formula is called The Process. Crimson Tide fans know all about The Process and how it’s led to six NCAA Division 1 championships.

But no one can explain it. Not even players. Yet they know it. More importantly, they know how to execute it. 

There are words associated with it: discipline, toughness, commitment. You could find those words on posters in any high school locker room, but they won’t score touchdowns or shut down menacing offenses. 

Maybe there’s an easy way to understand Nick Saban. He’s the sleuth who sees patterns that others don’t and ignores all those things that interfere with winning.

Simple enough. Why can’t we all do that?

One reason: maybe we talk too much when we should be taking action. We talk about trust when it should be innate. We talk about our strategy when we should mimic Herb Kelleher when he said of Southwest Airlines, “We have a strategic plan. It’s called ‘doing stuff.’”

Wait, in branding, isn’t the idea of purpose to act demonstrably with focus in order to answer a higher calling? Yes. Except remove the word demonstrably. Act with purpose, but quietly. 

Brands talk obsessively about purpose, but too often they generate more heat than light. NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway recently told the New York Times that all the recent purpose buzz in business circles was “yoga babble...as if my yoga instructor went into investor relations.” 

Yoga babble has led to language like this from big-name, on-trend companies who are all underperforming:

  • An innovation company transforming the lives of people around the world
  • Unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working
  • Unlock the potential of human creativity
  • Ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.

(See the addendum below to match the brands to the language.)

Plus, we have proof that consumers aren’t buying the hype. In a recent study sponsored by Edelman, a majority of people think most brand purpose efforts are marketing ploys — and only 34 percent trust the brands they buy, with 54 percent saying the brands trust-wash their messages. 

Why does this happen? In part because brands get bad advice, which leads them to pontificate about purpose rather than practice it. 

Last year, Accenture Strategy released a white paper about purpose, “To Affinity and Beyond: From Me to We, the Rise of the Purpose-Led Brand.” It epitomizes overthinking, such as with this poetic rallying cry: "Companies should focus less on investing for customers and more on investing with their new ecosystem partners to drive competitive agility." 

What?

Purpose is too important to be so mishandled. When done right, purpose enriches a brand not just for its investors, but for its employees, its customers and its community. Purpose doesn’t need yoga babble, psychobabble, or any kind of babble. 

That’s why the powerful lessons come from heads-down brands like the Crimson Tide. Or Costco or Starbucks, who pay their workforces a premium compared to peers, along with offering robust healthcare coverage even for part-time employees. Both brands get huge credit for something so simple. Their purpose-driven commitment to their workforce is action, not talk. 

Or think of brands like Disney or the United States Marines—neither of which depend on empty rhetoric. Disney has changed the word wonder into an ideal. USMC has done the same with duty. 

All share the character of Project Apollo, which inspired 1960s America with its JFK-inspired purpose of “sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade.” 

Luminous images evoke Apollo’s drama: the thunderous Saturn V launch, the earthrise that the astronauts witnessed when orbiting the moon, the grainy image of the first step. 

But the real story was far more mundane. We never saw the repeated perfection of millions of other steps before that first one, executed by a team of dedicated, disciplined professionals. Apollo was, after all, a military operation above all else. The president laid out the mission. Success, however, depended on an unimaginable attention to detail.

When purpose is so well-executed, on such a grand scale, it becomes something greater than itself, whether it’s a moon landing, six national championships, or the reach of a brand with the power of Disney or the United States Marines.

It becomes myth. 

No one talks about it while they achieve it.

If you want that for your brand, here are two suggestions. First, take care of your own. Pay more than a living wage so none of your employees rely on food stamps or Medicaid. Offer healthcare benefits for all. Provide retirement benefits like it were 1973. Don’t run sweatshops, either abroad or in the U.S. Your team fuels your growth. Share it with them, don’t squeeze it out of them.

Second, take a hint from "Fight Club," whose first — and second — rule was, “You do not talk about Fight Club.” Make “You do not talk about purpose” your first two rules. When you don’t talk, you’ll focus on what matters. 

Here are five more rules:

  1. Always know where you’re going, but never forget where you came from. See Apollo.
  2. Set your priorities in this order: team, country, community, customers, profit.
  3. Fill more than need.
  4. Work your ass off.
  5. Don’t tell anyone how you did it. 

When the Harvard Business Review anoints you for the great ecosystem your brand has become, don’t talk about Purpose. Say it was your competitive agility.



Addendum—the four yoga babble brands:

  • An innovation company transforming the lives of people around the world (Peloton)
  • Unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working (Dropbox)
  • Unlock the potential of human creativity (Spotify)
  • Ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion (Uber)

Barkley US

Nov 15, 2019

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