How can true purpose win the battle for attention?

By Matthew

· 6 min

We live in a world that feels beset with collective problems – social, political, environmental, medical – that make many of us feel anxious, and compelled to assist.

These problems exist in a media and technology landscape where barriers to participation have never been lower. And the opportunity to engage people in big, emotive arguments has never been more ubiquitous.

This is the world in which brands have discovered purpose-based communications.

For brands who travel this road, this involves (superficially) transforming into political organisers, into charitable fundraisers, into think-tanks and pressure groups. 

The degree of impact, both for the cause and the business, varies wildly based on the authenticity of their intention, and the durability of their attention. But some have demonstrated real skill in the storytelling of what they are doing, and why.

And yet many of the most important problems still sit in the shadows.

Cutting through with Purpose

Organisations that do the most fundamental work against these crucial problems – the charities, non-profits, campaigners and research bodies, are often struggling to gain our attention.

Communications for positive change have a unique opportunity. To engage people’s wearied attention, to drive action with intention, and bring people together.

But when everyone appears to have ‘purpose’, how can real, substantial contribution cut through?

Opportunity 1: Finding your emotional thread 

The stories of organisations with true purpose can be profoundly emotional, because they engage with our deepest senses of empathy for others, or because they strike at some of our own deepest needs and fears.

It’s these emotions that convert into our desire to raise money, to volunteer, or to use services for ourselves or for our loved ones.

For these emotions to resonate over time, to transmute into conversation, into action, they need to ring out clearly, consistently, and distinctively.

The most powerful stories of purpose resonate because they are profoundly simple: the defeat of an insidious monster that ruins health and happiness; the quest for a better world for ourselves and for our children; the desire to renew the society we live in.

These stories engage our hearts, give us hope, and compel us to action.

The reality is of course is that most for-good organisations are not just centres of purpose, but centres of knowledge. Which is a powerful weapon – but with knowledge comes sophistication of understanding of the problem, and complexity. This may be profoundly important to addressing the problem, but it can be an impediment to engaging.

For-good organisations are also centres of effort – and the natural path of effort is to find many outlets. Charities in particular have a natural tendency to scope creep over time – to fragment into different initiatives, different audiences, different platforms.

The more detail we accrue, the more chapters we build, the harder it is to tell our story.

To become great storytellers, we need to clearly define that emotional arc, incorporate it into a consistent thread and intent, and pull it through everything we do.

Opportunity 2: Demonstrating the change

Our underlying sense of hope and empathy preconditions us to respond emotionally to a quest towards ends of real social importance.

But our calculating brains make us profoundly sceptical about the means. We will intuitively being to think of problems as too big, too complicated, too endemic to be solved; and of plans as being too complex, too wasteful, too idealistic to succeed.

This is where an organisation’s underlying theory of change, its most fundamental division of labour, can become a powerful communications device to rally people to the cause, and gain commitment.

If you’ve succeed at highlighting an emotionally urgent problem, how do you really go about solving it? How can you convince me that your way is the most effective way, the most efficient way?

This is the crucial piece of architecture that connects you aspiration and your impact. It tends to comprise 2-4 key elements, and usually, because of the way we compute stories, it’s a place for the Rule of Three.

What are the three key interventions you make that bring the end of the quest closer? Can you demonstrate your distinctive skill in each? Do you have evidence of impact of each course of action? Where can I see it?

Opportunity 3: Assembling your allies

Commercial communicators start with some significant advantages – to put it bluntly, they have money to spend, and they have customers who engage with them regularly.

For-good organisations tend to start with fewer resources, and with a sense of discomfort in using the resources they do have for communication, rather than for services, or at the very least for the direct payback of hard-working fundraising.

But the goals are also different, and not necessarily reliant on brute force of communication. The most powerful forces we have at our disposal are cultural currency, social norms, and collective will. And these require a multiplicity of messengers, a surround sound, that cuts through to people and lets them know that this issue, this opportunity, has momentum.

In this, a truly purposeful organisation will always have a trump card – a consortium of fellow travellers with the goodwill to push things forward. Ambassadors, advocates, media companies, influencers, journalists, retailers – all willing to give a little something to make the boat go faster.

The challenge of goodwill is that it is hard to choreography, and unfocused noise dissipates. It requires clear focus (see above), strategic structure, and organisation.

And if you do manage to assemble your allies to create surround sound, this is where the case can and must be built for a little bit of brute communications force.

When you work for an organisation or initiative of true purpose, it can be beyond frustrating to confront people’s inertia – and enraging to see more superficial or attention-seeking narratives take the stage.

But I feel that the stage is set for a new phase of highly effective storytelling that really does bring us together to make the world better.

It’s up to all of us not just to do the work – but to tell its story as well and as fully as we can.

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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