Why Purpose? Why Now?
Why Purpose? Why Now?
When companies take the lead in driving social and environmental change, they position themselves to build deeper bonds, expand their consumer base, and enlist others to amplify their brand message.

“I think it’s great corporate America is standing with me.” Those are the words of one high school student leading the fight on gun control—with the help of a few multi-billion-dollar companies.

And this reflects a new business norm. Companies can no longer stand on the sidelines of hot-button issues. They must enter the fray to take a stand on divisive issues and also help solve urgent social problems.

We’re in the middle of a major cultural shift. Consumers are demanding that companies do more than make a profit: They are insisting that companies address issues within their business footprints and sometimes outside of them. Issues such as gun control, racial equality, and women’s rights are all fair game. And Americans are willing to look under the hood to assess whether a company is actually following through with its commitments. Nearly two-thirds of consumers will do research to see if a company is “authentic” when it takes a stand on an issue.

Yet in 2017, we saw many companies fall down when attempting to align with an issue that did not authentically tie to its purpose—Pepsi’s misguided Kendall Jenner ad and Audi’s ambitious Super Bowl commitment that fell short on reality are two examples. For brands to effectively take a stand, they must look deep within their organizations to understand how these issues align with their reason for being. And while consumers and business leaders alike are seeking purpose, most are unsure of what it really means. The semantics of “purpose” are fractured and sometimes confusing—terms like sustainability, citizenship, cause, and shared values are used interchangeably with purpose, further muddying the waters. The true tension lies less in terminology and more in knowing what purpose means for an organization, and how companies can authentically lead with purpose at the core. 

Purpose is more than a mission statement or a commitment of values. Purpose defines an organization’s authentic role and value in society, and allows it to simultaneously grow its business and positively impact the world. It must be deeply embedded within the organization, the brand, and the experience that the organization delivers.

For some companies such as Patagonia, TOMS, and B Corps, purpose drives every aspect of the business and is pervasive throughout the organization and brand. This may set a high bar, but purpose is not elitist, nor is it unattainable. Purpose is multi-faceted, and there are many ways companies can demonstrate their purpose in an authentic way, as long as they are clear on their objectives, goals, and current and future commitments.

Depending on what a company is trying to accomplish and needs to deliver upon, there are five main ways companies can approach purpose:

  • Purpose brand strategy: At the most macro level, purpose brand strategy is about identifying and articulating an organization’s role and value in society, and then leveraging the organization as a force to positively impact society and the world. Patagonia, for instance, has deeply embedded purpose into its very reason for being. As a company founded to make equipment for outdoor sports, it has remained steadfast to its mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” And it makes business decisions that singularly align with that purpose, including how it sources its materials and the entrepreneurial ventures it invests in—even going so far as to sue the current US federal administration for dramatically scaling back two national land monuments.
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR): CSR focuses on implementing responsible business practices and operations to deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits to all stakeholders. A good example is UPS’s approach to CSR, which focuses on the road ahead, both literally and figuratively. (Note: UPS is a client of my organization, Cone.) UPS’s CSR strategy centers on identifying trends, ideas, and technologies to pioneer more-sustainable solutions, deliver packages more efficiently, and create more connections around the world. For example, its robust city partnerships in places like London, Pittsburg, and Hamburg proactively address global trends such as the rise in e-commerce and the expansion of urban centers around the world. Through significant investments in electrification and alternative fuels and fleets, the company is apply cutting-edge tech to the urban challenges.
  • Social impact: When a company leverages social investments to advance important social issues and the well-being of communities, we call that social impact. For example: Since 2014, Bank of America has been committed to reducing the number of new HIV infections among children to zero. Through a partnership with (RED), an organization founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to harness the power of people and companies to help fight AIDS, the bank has already donated more than $10 million toward ensuring an AIDS-free generation with campaigns like Turn Your Miles Red with the Nike+ Running app. Bank of America donated 40 cents—the cost of one day of life-saving medication for someone living with HIV—to (RED) for every mile tracked on the app. Now, it is doubling down on its pledge, committing an additional $10 million over the next five years.
  • Social marketing: Social marketing focuses on influencing behavior change that benefits individuals and societies. With a commitment that started in 2010, AT&T has been devoted to preventing texting while driving among teens through its It Can Wait campaign. The newest development is a virtual reality tour traveling the United States to show the dangers of distracted driving up close and personal. The interactive experience will feature “a memorial wall, a wall of keys representing lives lost, and a wall made to look like crushed car parts that surround the viewer.” The effort has been highly successful over the years, with more than 23 million pledges to drive distraction-free.
  • Brand communications: When a company focuses on brand communications, it is connecting with consumers by going beyond product attributes to engage on issues that matter. Acknowledging the divisiveness that the United States is facing, in December 2017, KIND Healthy Snacks launched a storytelling campaign to counter this negativity. The #moreKIND campaign invited consumers to partake in the brand’s mission of creating a kinder world through a video series and consumer call to action. The company asked consumers to share their own stories of kindness for a chance to win $25,000 to donate to the charity of their choice.

As we look at the multidimensional nature of purpose, it’s important to remember that one approach is not better than another, and oftentimes companies are doing many of these things at once. But each approach meets different goals and requires a different level and type of commitment, investment, and institutional will. To be authentic, companies need to evaluate what they are looking to accomplish and align on the best approach.

Purpose is not an add-on strategy or “here today, gone tomorrow” promotion. Companies need to ensure they are “walking the talk.” This means pulling purpose not only through business practices and operations, but also through their work on the issues it chooses to stand for. Going forward, we hope brands take better care to determine the role companies can play in society, and choose an approach that is authentically right-sized for their organization.

In this series, leading organizations and companies such as Timberland, Ben & Jerry’s, UPS, Johnson & Johnson, and Walmart will share their perspectives on how to authentically articulate and operate with purpose, and thus positively impact their bottom-lines, their brands, and society.