Post-Brexit Strategies for a Digital Age (2): creating a purposeful business

Atmosphere

Since the EU Referendum a consensus has developed that in a world of uncertainty the UK now has to forge a new purpose. Even if it manages to retain access to the Single Market its relationship with the EU will change and therefore so too will its place in the world: it will have to redefine its purpose. The same is true for UK businesses.

UK businesses now find themselves surrounded by uncertainty. The future of the economy is uncertain and equally how the different market segments within it will behave is extremely uncertain. Some markets may well become volatile influenced by shifting government spending plans, the changing value of sterling and more cautious investment by big companies. In this new economic environment businesses will need to secure the trust and loyalty of their employees and customers if they want to prosper. The evidence is mounting that in order to do this, business needs to become increasingly purpose-led.

We believe that the businesses that succeed in a post-Brexit world will be those that are purposeful and outward-looking. That means having values and ethical ways of operating that are in tune with their own people and their markets. More crucially, those businesses that are digitally enabled will be best placed to pursue this way of being and operating.

Many of the world’s highly successful companies today have a purpose that goes way beyond making a financial return. Their ‘purpose’ reaches out to people’s concerns and values, especially those that resonate with younger buyers, especially the millennial generation which is becoming more dominant in today’s markets. These concerns may be social, economic, cultural or environmental. The companies that live according to one or more of these valued concerns have their behaviour enshrined in their brands. So they are recognizable not only for their products or services but for what they represent.  Those who purchase a Patagonia jacket are buying into a credo of environmental stewardship and sustainability (for more, search their “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign), a value proposition that extends beyond “stay dry, keep warm”. Whether they realize it or not they are emblematic of what Jeremy Rifkin, Senior Lecturer at Wharton Business School and author of The Empathic Civilization,calls the empathetic consciousness that he believes is sweeping across the world.

Our conviction is that only purposeful businesses will survive in a very uncertain future. If you are not creating a business that is intrinsically purpose-led you are going to lose out to your competitors, even the behemoth of FMCG, Unilever understand this. Therefore, a business needs to have something worthwhile for people to gravitate towards it or it will decline.

We also believe that Brexit will accelerate this trend, because companies will need to find ways of making themselves more trustworthy. Competing on price or the quality or attributes of your product or service will not be enough. Your buyers will want to know what you stand for, or to paraphrase Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action, they will want to know what you exist for and why.

There is another compelling reason for being purposeful when the future looks so uncertain: purpose-inspired businesses find it easier to attract talent. In a post-Brexit world where UK companies will be competing for talent not just with each other but with companies in Continental Europe, America, Australia and Asia, companies that are seen to have more empathetic values will win out against their competitors. A number of research surveys both in the US and the UK have shown that among people in their late teens or twenties a company’s ethos and work environment outranks pay when choosing a company to work for. These are the millennials, for whom purpose and value have real resonance, and for many companies these are the very digitally-savvy people that they need.

If we look inside companies those that have a purpose in a post-Brexit world are more likely to achieve greater social cohesion and commitment than those that do not. The Referendum result shone a light on the divisions in the UK, geographically, educationally and socioeconomically, and it also revealed a gulf in attitudes, expectations and understanding between many companies’ senior management and everyone else. The companies that can now bring all their employees together within an inspired purpose will outdo their competitors both in the UK and abroad. Companies that can show that their employees stand for some overriding purpose and that they are working with values that their customers expect will win out over those companies that are unable to do this.  Our view is that this is not only desirable but essential if UK companies are to pick up the challenge and forge a new success.

A maelstrom of companies are out there competing for attention, and those that have a notable and trusted purpose will have the most loyal adherents and ambassadors. What this demands is finding and burnishing a true purpose that not only reflects what a company does, but which is in tune with the credos of its target customers. It also requires that companies have accountable, cross-functional teams that will deliver, measure and improve tangible, purpose-led initiatives quickly and effectively. Your business simply can no longer afford the luxury of working within silos to a departmental objective. It’s the world of the customer centricity now, well and truly.

These requisites play to some of the UK’s strengths, which are its leadership in the creative industries and advertising. However, they also require digitally competent management that can understand and grasp the opportunities that today’s digital technology offers. This is something that UK companies need to address more rigorously.

One of the major reasons why the UK in the past wanted to be part of what was then the European Community was that it made sense to increase trade with a block of countries that were not only growing more rapidly than the UK but just as important were near neighbours. Buying and selling then was a very physical activity, for there was no ubiquity of the internet. All that has changed. That is the one big difference between then and now. Opportunities have opened up that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Yet alongside the opportunities there remains a great deal of uncertainty. We believe that only those companies that have the undivided trust and loyalty of their employees and their customers will be sustainable in an uncertain world. That means having a purpose that is understood and that commands attention from those it seeks to interact with. Once you have a sure, trusted purpose then everything else can flow from that. But if you don’t have a purpose, that is, a purpose that appeals to others and draws them to you, then you drift.

Surviving in the post-Brexit world means being purposeful and venturesome. Fortune favours the brave. And the digitally enabled.

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