Every year, companies spend countless hours and dollars determining how to build a culture of innovation. From implementing incentive plans, to new office layouts, to equipping rooms with foosball tables, beanbag chairs and video game systems–leaders frequently struggle to determine what environments and workplace perks will motivate employees. However, game rooms and kitchens stocked with snacks are merely accoutrements–the key driver has been in front of CMOs all along. It’s company purpose.

Through our research, we’ve found that an understanding of company purpose and visible commitment to it makes it easier for employees to innovate. CMOs therefore must think about purpose as a mechanism for unleashing innovation and sustaining it. Leaders who commit to articulating their company’s purpose in a clear and simple way play a critical part in making innovation easier.

The Value of Purpose

By nature, innovating isn’t easy. Organizational hierarchies and tortuous approval processes often slow the communication of ideas within companies, and erect barriers. During a global survey of more than 10,000 consumers and employees, we learned that employees believe innovating is the second least simple thing to do in the workplace (next to asking for a raise). Participants also identified the top attributes that contribute to workplace innovation. The top seven:

  • Solid understanding of company purpose
  • Leadership’s commitment to that purpose
  • Environment that empowers employees to speak their minds
  • Workspaces with open floor plans
  • Having a close friend at work
  • Ability to find and share information easily internally
  • Open door-policy

Understanding of and commitment to purpose top the list.

Defining Purpose

We define purpose not as what a company does, but rather why it does it, answering the critical question: “Why do we do what we do?” It is a necessary organizing principle that sits at the nexus of talent, branding, and CSR. It motivates employees, guides behavior, and must be stated in a way that is simple, noteworthy and remarkably fresh. A purpose articulated in this way works hard for a company, serving as a cultural unifier, compass for product development and innovation driver.

Consider eyewear manufacturer Warby Parker’s purpose statement: “We believe everyone has a right to see.” This purpose reflects the company’s partnership with non-profit institutions for its “buy a pair, give a pair” program that ensures for every pair of glasses purchased, one pair is donated to someone in need. It also expresses the company’s value proposition—offering affordable eyewear to consumers.

And it’s key to driving innovation. When asked why the company is innovative during an interview, CEO and Founder Neil Blumenthal noted: “We’re a new brand of designer eyewear, designed to let people express their personality while doing good in the world. We’ve made pricing simple — there’s one price, $95. And for every pair we sell, we distribute one to someone in need.” It all harkens back to the purpose.

See also outdoor apparel company Patagonia for inspiration. Their mission statement is central to guiding program and product development: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This purpose has guided numerous breakthrough programs — as early as 1993, the company was creating fleece material from recycled soda bottles. Their common threads initiative encourages the repair, reuse, and recycling of their products. Patagonia was named one of the most innovative companies in 2012.

These innovative companies offer prime examples of creating purpose statements that are simple and fresh.

Clarifying Your Purpose

How do CMOs articulate a company purpose in a way that resonates with employees? They must develop the purpose through the lens of simplicity. When assessing brand purpose, leaders must consider whether the message is:

  • Clear: Is the message is well organized, written in a way that is easy to understand and free of jargon?
  • Credible: Is the message straightforward and transparent, particularly when it comes to motivation and consequences?
  • Actionable: Is the information articulated and organized in the order of relative importance, omitting extraneous elements?
  • Inspiring: Is the message appealing — respectful, human, not assuming expert knowledge — and organized based on the employee’s information needs?
  • Relevant: Is the purpose useful and relevant to the world we live in?

The Simple Truth

Applying simplicity to purpose is not simple–it takes a judicious eye to recognize and strip away unnecessary messages and amplify only key elements. But it’s a necessary duty for CMOs, a critical first step to answering the innovation question, and how today’s modern marketing leaders can play a high-impact role in driving their businesses.

Margaret Molloy is the Global CMO for strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale.

Follow her @MargaretMolloy

This article first appeared in Wired Innovation Insights.

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