Purpose can Provide
the Second Act.

Remember when you were young, ambitious, principled, and had none of the responsibilities that come with being grown up and successful? That’s the difference between a start up and an established business.


Most companies begin with an ambitious leader on a mission to solve a problem, to fill a gap in the market, or bring a genius idea to reality. They are new, exciting, different. Customers flock to them, everyone wants to work for them, they grow at dizzying rates, they go public, get rich, they are hugely successful, mission accomplished – or is it...? Wait, what was the mission again?


"It seems to be as common as middle-aged spread – as businesses get older, bigger, more complex, more siloed...they slip into a gentle, almost imperceptible state of decline."
"It seems to be as common as middle-aged spread – as businesses get older, bigger, more complex, more siloed...they slip into a gentle, almost imperceptible state of decline."


We talk about Purpose a lot at Wolff Olins because we know how much it means to today’s consumers and employees. In our Game Changers report, we found that customers today expect the businesses they buy from to be more intentionally purposeful. And having a brand with a strong sense of purpose attracts not just customers, but also employees and suppliers. We’ve written more specifically about how a strong sense of purpose impacts a business’s internal culture in another article on this site.


But it seems to be as common as middle-aged spread – as many businesses get older, bigger, more diverse, more complex, more siloed, have more mouths to feed, and increasing pressure to serve shareholders – they slip into a gentle, almost imperceptible state of decline. Their star shines just a little less brightly, their growth is slower or flat, they find it harder to attract bright young talent, and it gets harder and harder to get anything meaningful done. And even though the world is changing fast around them, nobody wants to rock the boat or take risks. Sound familiar?


Even agencies sometimes fall victim to this syndrome, talking to themselves rather than thinking about their clients' needs - waiting for the next big thing to knock on the door. We know, Wolff Olins has made this mistake before.


But when our company was in its 40s, a healthy combination of ambition to make more impact and a global recession soon kicked us back into shape. We laser-focused our own purpose on delivering value to clients, we got clearer about the kind of clients we want to work with and why, and just as importantly, we got clearer about the work we don’t want to be doing.


We applied the same discipline to our people and culture, with zero tolerance for off brand behavior. It’s working. The compound effect on our business has been hugely liberating and rewarding on many levels.


For companies in their middle age, having a clear sense of purpose and the discipline to deliver is more important than ever. Their scale, reach and reputation gives them power to impact the world in ways that entrepreneurs only dream of. A sense of energy and meaning is what attracts smart young minds. And having a reason for being, beyond the bottom line, will keep them focused, looking forward and capable of outliving anything that this crazy wonderful world throws at them.


Walking in the footsteps of the giants:

Here are 11 middle-aged companies who've started a second act by getting back to their original purpose.


Apple: It famously got back to its core when Steve Jobs came back and asked everyone to “Think Different.” A 1984 Apple Ad campaign had said “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world… Are the ones who do."


IBM: They've gone from International Business Machines to focus on something more vital for the future— a Smarter Planet. Since the initiative launched, Smarter Planet has been a door-opener for the company, creating interest among new clients in how IBM’s software products and consulting services could help assess and improve their organizations.


GE: CEO Jeff Immelt (with our help) took GE back to their innovation roots and to Edison, with the brand idea “Imagination at Work.” Immelt said "Imagination at work is not a tagline, it's a reason for being." GE has now added $25 billion dollars in additional revenues from 85 “Imagination Breakthroughs,” inspired by the brand idea, all while being named a “most admired company” for two years running by Fortune.


TBS: In its 40s, the television channel refocused itself as  "Very Funny” to differentiate its purpose from competing channels and bring to the fore that it is the final word when it comes to humor.


Dunkin' Donuts: With the launch of "America Runs on Dunkin," they started a significant repositioning in their mid-50s. In a quirky way, the idea refocused the company on fueling busy Americans on the go.


Unilever: They rediscovered their roots (again with our help) with the brand idea of "Adding Vitality to Life." To make cleanliness commonplace, to lessen work for women, to foster health and in general, make life more enjoyable and rewarding for the people that use their products. They've also since designed dozens of projects to put vitality at the heart of the organization from designing workplaces, to transforming the recruitment process, to training employees how to pass on the stories that underlie the idea.


Chrysler: Their recent campaigns about their Detroit roots seem to have brought the company back from the brink, igniting their purpose around their product, category and city.


Starbucks: When Howard Schultz joined Starbucks in the 1980s, he envisioned the company would become “the third place” that people spend their time between home and work. It would be a different kind of company – one with a social conscience and a soul. He left for eight years and came back as CEO to find the company had strayed from its core, gotten too big and lost its neighborhood feel. Shultz reorganized by bringing them back to their purpose: being the highest-quality purveyor of specialty coffee without losing their soul.


Lego: Lego re-branded its entire product range and introduced a new slogan "Play on" to simplify what the Lego brand has always stood for. Rather than organizing products by age-range they started to group all of their creations under the categories Explore, Make & Create, Stories & Action, and Next.


Bang & Olufsen: A few years ago the Danish manufacturer made the strategic call to focus its development on audio and video products, since those were the areas that had traditionally driven their brand's growth across the world.


The Guardian: The Guardian's new approach to "open journalism" accepts that the newspaper is moving beyond a newspaper. As they work out the best way for a newspaper's content to be shared, distributed and connected all over the world, they've returned to their non-conformist roots, but contemporized them. 

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