We all know that words like “green”, “sustainable”, and “natural” have been used and abused to the point that they’ve lost much of their meaning. Well buckle your seatbelt, because “purpose” may be next.

WARC (formerly the World Advertising Research Center) cited an interview with Unilever’s Paul Polman in which the CEO said that every Unilever brand must now be driven by a “purpose”, such as Dove’s now famous “Campaign for Real Beauty” or Lipton aiming to acquire all of its tea from sustainable sources. “A successful product must provide utility,” Polman said, “but it must also exhibit a social consciousness, if you will…Every brand must have a social mission.”

Hard to argue with that as a general principle, even if Unilever is taking itself a bit too seriously. (“By drinking Lipton Tea,” Polman proudly pointed out, “a lone consumer can become part of a movement of millions of other people around the world that supports a socially responsible product. People want to be part of a movement like that.” Funny, I just thought I was thirsty.)

Unilever’s gargantuan global competitor, Procter & Gamble, is also using the “p” word. WARC reports that P&G “is combining consumer insights and its global reach to pursue ‘purpose-driven branding’ around the world.” But P&G is using “purpose” in a different sense than Unilever. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s head marketer, explained that “Purpose is much more than a cause or a corporate responsibility. We deliberately focused on making people define purpose as how brands improve everyday lives. A cause is just a piece of it as opposed to the whole thing.”

Pritchard cited varied examples, from Pampers’ purpose “to improve a baby’s healthy, happy development” (which includes a vaccination partnership with UNICEF), to Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” purpose, to Gillette’s lighthearted purpose in India of supporting “Women Against Lazy Stubble”.  I suppose shaving could be considered socially responsible, but probably not in the way Unilever would define it.

I’m not here to say which company’s approach to “purpose” is correct, although I do have some sensibilities about who will come out ahead. It’s possible that despite their semantic differences both companies may win, if for no other reason than they understand who’s driving the bus:

Polman: “If you understand what consumers want and have products that meet their needs, you can grow – regardless of macroeconomic conditions.”

Pritchard: “If you focus on the consumer, what your brand is doing to serve the consumer and if you have a big idea, you will win most of the time.”

What I can say is that by these two global giants invoking the same term, “purpose” will become a new buzzword that is bound to be picked up by other companies trying to stay in line with the times.

So consider this a warning flare: When a brand near you starts boasting about its purpose-driven mission, peel the onion back a layer or two. Make it your purpose to understand what their “purpose” really is.