Purpose and positioning are different – and they need to be

Purpose and positioning serve two very different functions for your organisation. It’s important that you don’t mix them up.

Last week I talked about the elements of purpose you need to think about for it to be successful. And in the process of getting to a mix of breadth, clarity and inspiration, it’s very easy to find yourself in positioning territory. Knowing how and why they are different yet equally important, is the key to avoiding that happening.

Purpose and positioning are not unrelated, but they are different and have very different functions for your organisation. It’s tempting to want to make the purpose a sexy customer-facing statement. In a recent purpose workshop I was in there was a lively discussion about whether purpose should be public at all.

For the record I’m not a fan of making purpose public. It’s a deeply held statement that should show up in everything you do, think and say – so in that way it is intensely public. But making the actual statement public risks influencing it in the wrong way. Purpose is not about trying to sound different or grab people’s attention. It’s your enduring why. It’s the articulation of the deep work of understanding your identity and what you care about (emphasis on you care) so it can drive the decisions and action inside your organisation.

Positioning on the other hand is completely public. It stands between you, your customers and the marketplace. It clearly states this is who we are and what we do. Where purpose is enduring, providing a stake in the ground the organisation can connect to and pivot around, positioning responds to the environment around you today.

Where purpose can and should be framed thinking of the next 30+ years, positioning needs to change every few years to stay current – especially in these times of rapid shifts in technology, business models and customer expectation.

Positioning rightfully focuses on what your products and or services are, and how you are delivering them to meet what needs. It does bring in purpose in answer to the question why do you do them, but in balance with those other aspects. It can also talk about processes, approaches and territory. It’s where any differentiation comes into play.

Whatever business you’re in, there are a myriad of approaches to positioning you can use. You can offset a creative company name with a descriptive positioning. Or spice up a descriptive company name with a more creative positioning.

And while purpose is the core that drives and aligns the whole business from yesterday, through today and on to tomorrow, positioning connects that core with the customer and other stakeholders in a way that is relevant today. It captures the progress and evolutionary shifts of your organisation. It does what purpose shouldn’t. It changes.

So by all means, make your positioning as outwardly friendly as you want. Go ahead and give it helpings of zing. Play with different versions and see what works.

It’s okay because in a couple of years things will have changed. You’ll have updated your products and services and there will likely be new competitors to take into consideration. So with all that, you’ll need to take it for another spin. What’s great is that you’ll still have your purpose to lean on and keep you grounded.

And that’s exactly the way it should be.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan

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